Category Archives: Pubs

K is for Koco’s Pub

I liked Koco’s Pub, but I think I went during the wrong time of year. Awash in beachy kitsch, this Hamilton mainstay seems like a careworn cliché in mid-July. In winter it probably feels like a tropical resort, with its palm-leaf murals and friendly service. I’m happy to go back and give it a go at some later, chillier date. With all its nods towards points south, Koco’s is a quintessential neighborhood spot.

Koco’s is a meandering, lemon yellow building with a be-parroted sign, looking not entirely unlike a cruise ship run aground on the side of Harford Road. The main entrance is on the side, on Overland Avneue, and when I ducked in on a sunny day, my eyes to a minute to adjust to Koco’s dim lighting. When my pupils sorted themselves out, I saw a clutch of families having dinner, complete with kids playing on the floor. I saw regulars lining the long bar at the far end of the restaurant. I saw the aforementioned beachy kitsch. Ugh.

I’m leery of all things beach-themed (restaurants, parties, weddings, etc), which are often an attempted cheap short cut to fun. Beach = AWESOME, right? There’s a picture of surfboard on this menu and the club sandwich is called a Jammin’ Jamacian, so I must be HAVING A BLAST!!! But really, only the beach truly feels like the beach. Whenever I’m standing in someone’s scrubby back yard next to a tiki torch drinking a melting mai tai, it’s like watching a bad drag queen with five o’clock shadow. C’mon, who are you kidding here?

Anyhoodle, beach-themed places work to do to win me over. Koco’s does the work, with bar food at extremely reasonable prices and happy hour drink specials. (Said happy hour only runs from 3-6, though, so nip out of work early to catch them. There aren’t any food specials, but when fries are $4 a basket that’s not really an issue.) My friend Ellie and I got a few domestic draft beers for $2, served in chilled pint glasses. For our second round, we got new glasses, straight from the freezer – very nice touch. The bartenders were the best I’ve encountered in a long time, attentive but not pushy. Ellie and I opted not to order food – not even Koco’s famous crabcake, which looked like a delectable softball of crabby, flaky goodness – and the staff was no less interested in making sure we were happy.

The bartender even gave us (and everyone else at the bar) an oft-refilled basket of snack mix. I fall for free-salty-snacks-trick every single time a bar places a thirst-inducing treat in front of me, like the rube at the street fair who’s sure he can beat the carnie’s shell game. But really, any place with free snackes is A-OK in my book and the incredible service evoked a four-star Carribbean hotel far more than Parrothead-y décor did. I didn’t feel whisked away to a tropical island, but I did feel right at home.

Note: Koco’s is closed on Sunday and Monday.

D is for the Diamondback Tavern

I agree heartily with the mission statement of the Diamondback Tavern:

“The Diamondback Tavern concept was built buy a group of local guys who were tired of there not being a place in Ellicott City, Columbia or Catonsville where you could sit back and drink, enjoy a good meal and watch the game without spending an arm and a leg.”

True dat, with the possible exception of G.L. Shack’s in Catonsville. I had high hopes for the Diamondback Tavern, located on Old Columbia Pike in Historic Ellicott City. It’s a charming space that seems to lure would-be bar owners away from the Main Street foot traffic, like sirens luring sailors to their deaths. There have been four incarnations of basically the same bar that I can remember, and none stick around for long. The Diamondback was competent but not spectacular, and history seems to indicate that’s not enough.

Entering the old stone building, I took a sharp right into the bar. It’s attractive and soothing, but the gestures towards sleek modernism fight with the rustic mill town feel of the structure and of Ellicott City itself. We hunkered down in one of the large booths and watched traffic and pedestrians go by on the sharp curve of road outside the big picture window. As our party trickled in, we perused the Maryland-inflected menu.

Lulu wanted fries with gravy; as a Lenten vegetarian, I nixed them in favor of edamame. It was the right choice. The steamed soybeans came with a healthy dusting of salt and pepper, while the fries that came with Genny’s Vegetarian Dream were lame. (Genny, a full-time vegetarian, can be tough to please with unimaginative veggie fare. But she assured me the open-faced portabella sandwich was, in fact, as dreamy as the name suggested.) The “crab dollop” was billed as “not your typical crab dip” but it is totally typical crab dip. Fortunately, typical crab dip is delicious. The crab and corn fritters were not. Too much fritter, not enough crab or tasty mustard sauce. Lulu’s vegetarian risotto was lovely and laced with an herb flavor none of us could name. I took a guess and asked the waiter if he knew what it was – lavender? – and he responded that it was butternut squash. Wha?

Despite the name and the “watch the game” part of the mission statement, there’s nothing particularly sporty about the Diamondback. Only two wooden turtles on the bar allude to the Maryland Terrapins. No turtle ice cream or Brenda Frisee Salad? Am I the only one who enjoys really hacky food puns? Yes? Oh.

Anyway, the name hints at a sports bar and the menu aspires to be a gastro pub. The Diamondback offer daily drink specials and live music that seem to encourage a young crowd, but the scene was really sedate. There’s a disconnect happening here, but things could fall into alignment if Diamondback endures and settles into a clearer identity.

Diamondback’s website doesn’t post its wine list, which is a huge oversight because that sucker is awesome. Or, perhaps more accurately, awesomely priced. I almost fainted out of my lovely window seat when I saw that a healthy handful of wines by the glass for $4 and $5, two bottles of wine priced at $16 and plenty more bottles in the $20-something range. It’s not something that will make your wine snob friends writhe with envy, but your wine snob friends are lame and far less fun than your cheap drunk friends. So call the cheap drunks, tell they to bring a $20, and you guys can go to town on some $16 wine and crab dip.