Farm Brewery-To-Table: Old Ellicott City's Manor Hill Tavern offers up crab fondue, smoky pizza, and upscale beers

A quick history lesson: The line of particularly colonial looking structures that sit on the first uphill block of Old Columbia Pike just off Main Street in Ellicott City is locally known as "Taylor's Row." While the neighboring Tonge Row once served as rowhomes for 19th century millworkers, these buildings were initially used in the mid-to-late 1800s as barns or sheds for farm animals. Today, Tonge Row hosts a coffee spot, River House Pizza Co., and a few small shops while Taylor's Row is home to the new Manor Hill Tavern (3733 Old Columbia Pike, [410] 465-8500, manorhilltavern.com), which officially opened last year.

Manor Hill Tavern sits on the site of the former Diamondback Tavern (a longtime local spot that offered $3 orange crushes and Natty Boh pitchers on special before its demise last year) and boasts a fully revamped interior, menu, and restaurant concept—the brainchild of Victoria's Gastro Pub owner Randy Marriner. Marriner, along with his wife Mary and their daughters, also operate the nearby Manor Hill Brewery on farmland a scant seven miles away from the Tavern. The Taylor's Row property was initially intended to reopen as Manor Hill Tavern at the end of the summer of 2016 but faced understandable logistical delays in the face of July 2016's devastating flash flood. While the Diamondback Tavern was a sports bar in a town with no shortage of sports bars, Manor Hill Tavern is a decidedly classier affair that simultaneously embraces the rural roots of its foundation.

At 8 p.m. on a Saturday night earlier in the summer, all three floors of the restaurant are hopping. There's a college graduation party in a ground floor dining room, family and friends eating and laughing together at tables big and small, and a nearly full line of seats at Manor Hill's stone-topped third floor bar. Even among the din of conversation and fork-on-plate, the tavern's staff is alert, attentive, and eager to take your drink order.

Given that Manor Hill is a sort of sister site to a brewery, it's not a shock that the restaurant offers 10 unique draught beers on tap along with the usual cans of Narragansett and Bitburger. I tried a flight of three Manor Hill originals ($6)—Belgian style witbier Farm Fuzz, the Manor Hill IPA, and the Grisette (described on the menu as a farmhouse ale). The Farm Fuzz and Grisette are similarly refreshing, lighter beers, with the Farm Fuzz foregoing a more intense profile in favor of massive sipability. The Grisette, meanwhile, leaves a bit more flavor lingering on the tongue upon drinking. As someone who can't drink the cult of hyper-hoppy beer enjoyers' Kool Aid, this ale is the hoppy beer hater's IPA. The hops are still there but their presence is restrained, resulting in a rare IPA that doesn't punish your tastebuds.

Manor Hill also boasts an extensive "haunted" cocktail list with concoctions like the Rosemary's Baby and Old Fashioned Voodoo. I tried the Hayden House ($10), named for a haunted house connected to the Howard County courthouse, infamous for ghostly women who walk through walls and the phantom smell of cooked bacon and eggs. The cocktail consists of pineapple juice, Ketel One Vodka, and honey syrup served with a floating basil leaf. Overall, it was just a bit too sweet for me and a tad disappointing given the price tag.

It's when you get to appetizers that Manor Hill Tavern's menu starts to get really interesting. The eatery offers small plates ranging from General Tso's-inspired confit chicken wings ($10), mussels ($11) and mac and cheese ($9), but the star attraction is the Maryland State Fair ($13), two Old Bay-seasoned mini funnel cakes served with crab fondue that's topped with charred corn, "crab relish," and chives. I know what you're thinking—but listen, it's delicious. The funnel cake crunches in your mouth for hardcore rural summer fairground flashbacks and the fondue is like a light, high-concept take on crab dip. If there's anything at all to complain about here, it's that the pieces of funnel cake are an awkward delivery mechanism for the mini pan of crabby goodness and you'll run out of cake before you run out of fondue.

I also ordered the bacon fat fries ($7), which are exactly what they sound like and come with a side of almost unnecessary molasses ketchup. The fries are topped with bits of bacon and tasty "sweet bacon salt."

As far as entrees go, Manor Hill offers a small selection of suppertime plates that include a grilled pork chop ($22), a roasted half chicken with vegetables ($23), and a barley risotto ($18). I ordered the risotto (the chicken and pork were unavailable that evening), a hearty dish of rice, mushrooms, and tomato broth topped with fresh greens and asparagus. It's a filling and flavorful option for vegetarians wishing to forgo yet another restaurant salad.

For the less health conscious, I also tasted the tavern's "smokier burger" from their lunch/dinner sandwich menu during a second afternoon visit. The burger's mixed smoked Gouda and beef patty is topped with smoked bacon, smoked cheddar, "onion candy," and a horseradish aioli between a brioche bun that's baked in-house. A burger containing two types of cheese and bacon is, no surprise here, extremely rich, and while you may start to feel your arteries clog mid-munch, it's excellent. If you aren't satisfied with the burger as is, you can add pit beef ($3) or an egg ($2) and really play heart attack Russian roulette.

A variety of personal-sized brick oven specialty pizzas are on the menu as well, veering from the conventional (the "Cuparoni" is just a pepperoni pizza) to the more quixotic ("Mom's House" is topped with meatloaf and cheese meatballs, mashed potatoes, and broccoli). At my waitress' recommendation, I ordered the Holy Smoke ($17), a pizza topped with white BBQ sauce, mozzarella, cheddar, beer can chicken, and pickled jalapeno served under a glass dome filled with actual hickory smoke. The presentation had a two-bit stage magician theatricality to it and the pizza itself was tasty, with the pickled jalapeno adding a crucial heat to the more neutral flavors of the sauce, cheese, and chicken.

Manor Hill Tavern feels like a long overdue addition to Ellicott City's currently re-emerging restaurant scene, a nice middle ground between the $30-plus-a-plate fine dining of Tersiguel's and the cheapie bar fare available up and down Main Street. More importantly, Manor Hill feels like it has come into a very natural identity right out the gate as a reliable spot for farm country-inspired comfort food and interesting takes on once boring old standards.

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