1400 Light St.,  438-7289, therowhousegrille.com
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First-time visitors to the RowHouse Grille in Federal Hill will be forgiven for thinking they may have been here before. The exposed brick, the hardwood, and the televisions are reminiscent of more than a few of the taverns and restaurants wedged into our city’s beloved architectural archetypes. Likewise, the RowHouse Grille’s menu, heavy on bar and comfort food, wouldn’t be out of place in another establishment.
What sets RowHouse Grille apart, at least on a chilly Friday night, is not the food—which is fine and mostly fair-priced—but the democratic vibe of the place. If the upstairs dining room has more families than barflies, chalk that up to fewer televisions and a slightly quieter atmosphere. But whether you’re a regular or a newcomer, accompanied by your 2-year-old, your mom, or your date, chances are you’re going to get treated like a neighbor by the staff, who were overheard waving away apologies from patrons who hadn’t made reservations or had requested beer from one of the downstairs taps. There’s a sort of unflagging enthusiasm about the servers that doesn’t come across as pushy and makes you want to hang out there, even if there are better places in Federal Hill to eat (and there are).
Food at the RowHouse Grille hews to the familiar with a few exceptions. While you’d expect burgers and wings, and the more formal salmon and steaks, “lamb and lettuce,” a plate of za’atar-seasoned lamb accompanied by hummus and baba ghanouj is a surprise—one we would dearly have loved to sample if the kitchen hadn’t run out. Lentil salad, a daily special, is another uncommon offering among the pub fare, as is a New England lobster roll, which isn’t as ubiquitous around town as, say, oyster po’boys (though RowHouse Grille has those too). These items, plus a handful of entrées in the $20 range—steak frites, a braised lamb shank, pork flat-iron “steak”—suggest that the kitchen has serious ambitions, though the results are mixed. None of the dishes we tried were unacceptable, just mostly OK. Given the good-sized portions and the prices, this is mostly OK too.
Several dishes—the eggplant Parmesan starter, a tower of veg and cheese napped in marinara and pesto sauce ($9); the lobster roll, a petit hot-dog bun filled with lobster salad ($14); the ginormous organic roast chicken entrée ($20)—could use more aggressive seasoning, registering as acceptable but bland. At the same time, however, those items offer some really fine sides: crispy sweet potato fries sprinkled with sea salt with the lobster roll, sautéed greens and some seriously good macaroni and cheese spiked with bacon with the chicken.
More overall satisfying plates include the bistro steak (two pieces of tenderloin, a wine-based sauce, sautéed potatoes, and Brussels sprouts; $21) and moules frites done in classic mode (white wine, créme fraéche, garlic; $12), one of six different preparations available. The fries, like their sweet potato counterparts, are excellent, and the addition of Pernod imbues the mussel broth with a dash of anise. It’s a good, balanced dish, one I would order again. But it wasn’t my favorite dish of the evening. That award goes to one of the nightly specials: the beer and cheese soup with kale ($7). If you’ve lived in Baltimore long enough, you might remember Weber’s on Boston Street (since then the space has been home to a number of restaurants, the latest being Hollywood Burger Bistro). Weber’s had a beer/cheese soup that I thought lived only in memory. No longer. The RowHouse Grille’s version of the soup is creamy without being unctuous, buoyed by a nice sharp cheddar and that ruffle of kale. In winter, it could easily be a staple.
It would be an oversight not to mention the RowHouse Grille’s compact wine list, where all bottles are $33.33, and its 16 taps, many devoted to microbrews, including Fat Tire, Troeg’s, and Heavy Seas. Order up one of Hugh Sisson’s new Black Cannon IPAs and a plate of mussels and get to know the neighborhood.
The RowHouse Grille is open Monday-Saturday for dinner, plus Saturday brunch. Beer and cheese