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Henninger’s Tavern

1/2 I wanted to eat one “nice” meal in Baltimore. But defining nice isn’t easy. To me, nice is…well, if I had to use adjectives: upscale, modern and I guess intimate, though that sounds gross. Baltimore doesn’t have an Allen & Delancey or a Momofuku Ko (I’d have taken Ssam). And I guess this is why NYC is more unique than I give it credit for. It’s hard to complain about our dining options.

It appears that in Baltimore the more expensive restaurants are either a stodgy place you’d take a parent or have a business lunch or flashy and clubby likely serving mediocre tapas or pan-Asian food.

Woodberry Kitchen had potential but felt a bit precious and too locavore for my tastes. In my own version of eating local, I decided it would be best to choose a restaurant that could only be in Baltimore with an atmosphere unique to the city.

Henninger's interior

Henninger’s Tavern fit the profile perfectly. You enter through the bar; the narrow train car-esque dining room is off to the left. The walls are crammed with ephemera, pink elephant mobiles hang from the ceiling. If the word wasn’t so overused, I’d almost say it felt like a speakeasy, though one that organically evolved rather than born of strategic design. Not some Taavo Somer production but a gussied up chophouse with a sense of humor. The only place I can compare it to in NYC might be the rebounding Marion’s.

Henninger's oysters 

The food is a little fancy, not wildly creative, but solid. Still kind of full of pit beef from a late lunch, I probably didn’t need an appetizer at all. I still split an order of fried oysters just because I wanted them. And the breaded orbs sauced with a pernod-spiked cream dotted with fennel seeds certainly weren’t light.

Henninger's fisherman's stew

Fisherman’s stew was similar to a Portuguese caldeirada de peixe, except that there wasn’t any fish in it. There was a mound of shrimp, clams, mussels and octopus atop a substantial fried crouton that absorbed the sauce and turned into a soft edible bread sponge.

Henninger's peanut butter pie

We finished with a slice of peanut butter pie because I like my desserts sweet, fatty and American. It was 4th of July weekend. 

I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that they drink more in Baltimore than in NYC. To be more accurate, I was compelled to drink more in Baltimore than in NYC. In both bars and restaurants, servers are quick to bring drinks and eager to bring you more, there’s a palpable sense of disappointment when you say that you’re good. The atmosphere lends itself to drunkenness, kind of like Portland. I still can’t determine if my current wholly reasonable level of alcohol intake is because I’m no longer in my 20s or because I’m no longer in Portland.

After a pre-dinner whiskey sour at Henninger’s and two glasses of pinot noir with my meal, we moved onto the bar at the top of the Belvedere Hotel, which apparently has a salsa night on Saturdays. Strange because Baltimore didn’t strike me as a Latino hotbed (though we did drive through a strip of tacquerias and Mexican bodegas). A good portion of the crowd was made up of youngish white urban professionals but there were also middle aged Puerto Rican couples so what do I know. A margarita and gin and tonic were consumed there.

Then it was onto the Mount Royal Tavern, near the art school, which probably explains the bad art displayed on the walls. I went to art school so I know what I speak of, though I can say that I never made pencil sketches of Bob Marley in the privacy of my home let alone showed them in public. I had a pint of Magic Hat and a can of Natty Boh.

Following James’s trail of bars that he frequented 15 years ago we headed to Club Charles where we were half-heartedly carded and drank a gin and tonic. I was most taken with a girl who had ’50 cotton candy textured bleached white hair. There is most definitely a John Waters-influenced contingent thriving in Baltimore. I also observed that Goths are still alive and well but hang out a few buildings up the block.

That should’ve been it and 2am was rapidly approaching anyway. But James wanted to see the new and not necessarily improved Rendezvous Lounge, which apparently had moved kitty corner from its old location at some point in time, for all I know a decade ago. Supposedly in the early ’90s, the bar was of its era, filled with kitsch and playing the likes of Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash. I know the type of place.

Rendezvous lounge

Well, now it looks like a boarded up condemned house with only the faintest hint of signage, the letters long gone. I will grant that my perception was way off at this point, and perhaps it was actually a lovely, warm inviting space and not the barebones counter with shelves of liquor for sale (you can see in this photo—ignore the text which bizarrely uses the adjective “stylish”).

Creamed chipped beef There was only one other female patron, and minus her presence we were the only other white customers. I’m overly sensitive to feeling out of place, though, with all social strata and ethnicities. I don't think I have an element. It’s not that I have a problem with anyone (except bar-goers with strollers) I just fear that others will have a problem with me.

Never mind drunk driving, drunk shopping is more dangerous. We ended up at a large 24-hour supermarket buying Saga blue cheese, Little Debbie Zebra cakes, pizza-flavored Combos, a giant potato rosemary focaccia and a plastic bag of creamed chipped beef. It was only then that I could call it a night.

Henninger’s Tavern * 1812 Bank St., Baltimore, MD

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