Category Archives: Taverns

J is for J.A. Murphy’s

After such a long hiatus, it’s criminal that I should crib from the city’s best-known nightlife reviewer to explain how I feel about J.A Murphy’s Tavern in Fell’s Point. But Sam Sessa of the Baltimore Sun speaks the truth:

“”Without a hook, J.A. Murphy’s might not bring enough patrons to stay afloat…In the coming months, [owner Keith] Murphy wants to take black-and-white photos of his customers and hang them on the walls. That’s not a novel idea, but it might make the bar more personable.”

My trip to J.A. Murphy’s was pleasant but unremarkable. As Sessa said in his review, the service was very friendly and the prices are reasonable. Murphy himself is a natural host with a charming Boston accent. Genny and Mira snagged a table out front, so I can’t review the bar as well as I can review the sidewalk immediately adjacent to said bar. The drinks were cold and my crab mac-and-cheese was tasty, albeit extremely salty. (I am a salt fiend so it was OK for me but I wonder if it would please a broader audience.) As long as they can balance the books, I imagine J.A.’s will become a neighborhood staple.

That said, I hate the black-and-white photos idea. Must even bars, where we go to see and meet people in person, be a version of a Facebook page? Do we always need our own images and good times reflected back at us to remind ourselves and everyone else how much fun we are having? The owners call it “a bar about nothing” (ha ha) but seem to want to shade in a history that the place hasn’t yet earned.

When I think of a bar with pictures on the wall, I think of Morseberger’s Tavern on Frederick Road in Catonsville. This was my grandfather’s bar – not that he owned it, but he was a long-standing patron from when my grandparents first moved to the neighborhood after World War II. If you go to Morseberger’s – and there is really no reason to – look for the neon sign that austerely reads “BAR.” I would link to the Web site, but Morseberger’s doesn’t have or need one. Everyone who goes there found it long ago.

Inside you will see the walls papered with pictures of men like my grandfather, stretching from the early 1950s to the present day. These are guys who maybe got college degrees on the GI Bill, but probably worked union jobs from the day they got home until the day they retired. (Pop was a C&P Telephone dispatcher.) In the pictures, they are drinking, dancing, smoking, playing poker, holding babies up for the camera’s inspection. If I search them carefully, I can find two of Pop – one in black-and-white where he still has thick, dark hair and is turned away from a card game, another in color where a ball cap shields his balding scalp from the fierce midday sun on some desolate dock, as he holds up a huge fish and wears a proud grin, eager to have both recorded for posterity.

Back in the day, my grandmother didn’t like that Pop drank his after-work beers at Morseberger’s, because the front room was whites only. (Black customers were confined to a room in the back. Mom-Mom was of the opinion that if he wasn’t too good to take their money, Mr. Morseberger should have let his black customers have their choice of seating.) But that was where the neighborhood guys drank and gossiped and bought Lotto tickets, so that’s where he went year after year. It’s not a nice bar, but it’s one with a history.

When my Uncle Theo was a wee little kid in the early 1960s, my grandfather took him to Catonsville’s famous Fourth of July parade . They were standing on the sidewalk outside Morseberger’s when the national guard troops marched by. Most people politely stood and clapped, as Catonvillians still do each year. But one agitated hippie began screaming that the soldiers were pigs, baby killers, etc. An old lady got upset, so Pop told the agitator to quiet down. The other guy unwisely initiated a shoving match, and came up on the wrong end of Pop’s right hook.

With the hippie sprawled out before him and his son on the crowded sidewalk, Pop grabbed Theo and ran into Morseberger’s. He yelled at the guys at the bar to watch Theo and slipped out the back door, where the black customers came in. The victim (rightfully) complained to the police, who were only marginally committed to finding the assailant of the parade-disrupting pinko who couldn’t take punch. They popped into Morseberger’s and asked if anyone had any pertinent information. Astonishingly, no one in the packed bar had seen a thing. (I guess no one noticed or thought to question Theo, who I imagine was given a seat at the bar and a Coke.)

A few years passed, and opinions about the Vietnam War changed. By that time, my dad (older than Theo) was knocking on the door of eligibility and even my hippie-punching grandfather didn’t think it was a fight worth fighting anymore. One night Mr. Morseberger was fired up about not giving one inch to the Viet Cong; Pop told him to shut up, that he wouldn’t want his son to have to die for something so hopeless and he couldn’t expect other people’s kids to do the same. Mr. Morseberger came from behind the bar and was aching for a fight. Pop said, “Hey, you touch me, tomorrow I own this bar.” Morseberger backed off. Perhaps in that one-second, fist-to-face contact with the sidewalk agitator, Pop had absorbed a lesson about pacificism.

After my grandfather’s funeral, the cousins convened at Morseberger’s to raise a glass to Pop. As my sister and I were leaving,  my father remarked, “Pop went there for so long that if they had any class at all, they wouldn’t charge you for the drinks. They will, but they shouldn’t.”

They did charge us, but it was worth it anyway, to drink beer and laugh after a day of being quiet and sad in church and at the KoC hall.

So that is a bar with history, most recently the very sad history of two murders, much to the chagrin of the Catonsville Chamber of Commerce. One guy, Benjamin Shorter, reportedly beat a guy in line for the bathroom. (Incidentally, what is now the bathroom was formerly the blacks only section.) A Sun story quotes an acquaintance as calling Shorter a “nut job,” and Uncle Theo informs me that Shorter was always a lunatic and a stint as a recon Marine didn’t help. Morseberger’s is steadfastly not a member of the CoC and has no interest in the creeping gentrification of the neighborhood. I hope to God it is never turns into some sort of hipster parody of a working class bar, where cheap domestic beer is only consumed ironically.

Anyway, Morseberger’s is my image of a tavern with lots of pictures on the wall. For better or worse, J.A. Murphy’s, the bar about nothing, has a long way to go.

H is for Hamilton Tavern

Hamilton Tavern like walking into a Dorothea Lange photo, only everyone’s skinny because they’re Lauraville hipsters instead of starving Dust Bowlers. The walls are strewn with artfully arranged saws and farm equipment that allude to the tavern’s commitment to locally sourced and seasonal foods. You won’t find tomatoes on the burgers, because tomatoes in May are worthless. You won’t find stout on tap until autumn, because the summer is better suited to Resurrection and IPAs. While the Ham Tav is a haul from my hood, it’s a carefully designed restaurant with a clear idea behind it, one that I can respect and admire. It’s a nice marriage a modern concept with an antiqued decor.

Hamilton Tavern has a limited menu — about eight appetizers and six sandwiches. The kitchen has wisely limited itself to things it does well. This week’s dip of the week was spicy black bean; I do wish I’d had the chance to try the smoked salmon dip from some weeks past. Mmm, smoked salmon. (Note: if anyone has any local smoked salmon dishes to recommend, please put them in the comments!)

Genny and I ordered fried pickles, which were the best I’ve ever had, although I think fried pickles are a contradiction in terms. While I love pickles and I love fried things, pickles are just too soggy to really achieve the crispness that defines fried food. (I feel the same way about Black Velvets. I adore champagne and Guinness, but can’t imagine them mingling.) Hamilton Tavern’s goat cheese side sauce is a tasty addition to the fried cukes. I still preferred the buffalo tofu — the creamy dullness of the tofu compliments the spicy of the buffalo sauce well.

In any case, Genny was pleased with the vegetarian options. There were some meatier things that I would have tried if we’d been there for a full-on dinner (namely the pulled duck BBQ sandwich, since I’ve had duck on the brain lately). Service was serviceable, but not special. Kudos goes to the designer, though. The farm equipment, pressed tin ceiling and fairy lights on the railing give an unearned patina to a very new restaurant. The ladies room is neatly papered in torn pages from authors like Edith Wharton and Kate Chopin. As an affirmed bookworm, I WILL do this to my powder room some day, even though I often come home from work so exhausted by words I want revert to pictograms and smoke signals.l

Restaurant owners would likely weep on a review that ends with a praise of the bathroom decor, and the Hamilton Tavern deserves better than that. I’ll have to go back sometime soon, and try that duck sandwich and check out the intriguing but as-yet-neglected-by-me wine list.

Incidentally, the people have spoken in regard to the Hamilton Tavern — it edged Heninger’s for AAH honors. Apparently no one has any love for Hull Street Blues in Locust Point. I have my I spot (iSpot?) all picked out, but start thinking about J places. Thanks.