1710 Thames St.,  537-5055, waterfronthotel.us
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Just before 7 p.m. on a Thursday evening, business is sparse at the Waterfront Hotel. Two people nurse pints at the bar; one table of four digs into burgers. The staff chats quietly in the corner near the register, looking up every so often at a TV tuned to ESPN, and my stomach sinks at the anticipation of what I imagine will be a lackluster pub meal served by indifferent staff.
To my absolute delight, it turns out that my worries are entirely unfounded.
Although the historic Waterfront Hotel (established 1771) feels as bare bones as can be, from an interior that’s hard to describe without using “rustic” to the scattering of high-tops with backless bar stools, no shortcuts have been taken with either the food or the service. When a server urges you to make quick choices so you can get half-price appetizers before the special times out at 7 o’clock, you know you are in good hands. That Thursday turns out to be Burger Night, with half-price burger specials, is also a boon.
It’s been a year since the Waterfront Hotel changed ownership, and with the change comes a new menu, one that on the surface looks a lot like what you might get at other Fells Point pubs. Looking for burgers or wings? They’ve got ’em. Crab dip? Shrimp salad? Club sandwich? Mac ‘n’ cheese? All that too.
But chef Stephen Carey also offers some surprises, such as a butcher’s plate with house-made sausage and pork terrine (unavailable the evening we dined, sadly) and a smoked beef brisket sandwich, along with several dishes freshened up with a few tweaks. Sliders are made of smoked lamb breast; more smoking transforms the citrus-brined chicken in the smoked chicken cheese steak; tacos come filled with pork belly and roasted duck as well as more conventional offerings. Similar attention to detail is given to a tap list that covers a nice array of styles, most made by microbreweries. Having to decide among Yards Love Stout, Dale’s Pale Ale, New Belgium Fat Tire, and Brewer’s Art’s Ozzy is a problem I can live with.
But whatever you choose, do order a pint if you’re ordering crab soup ($6 for a cup), because nothing tempers the spicy broth—not the green beans and other vegetables, not the ample crab—like a beer. Don’t say you weren’t warned. Another option is to soak up the spice with a plate of onion rings ($7), large as bracelets and bound in a soft batter not unlike the doughnuts sold at the farmers market under the JFX. The rings aren’t super crispy, but are really pleasant despite that, although the bacon aioli accompanying them is a slightly odd choice. The fried oysters ($11), on the other hand, are simply perfect—well sized and briny/chewy inside and coated with panko outside.
Also be aware that the folks at Waterfront (abbreviated WTF—WTF?) are not stingy with french fries. Available sprinkled with garlic, Old Bay, or chili spice (or just plain), they dwarf whatever else is on the plate, be it two mild catfish tacos ($9) full up with strands of lime-marinated cabbage and a fresh tomato-avocado salsa or the smoked beef brisket ($14), whose hot and mustardy Carolina barbecue sauce will send you back to your beer. Our server touted the burgers and rightly so. Although the menu doesn’t announce the beef’s pedigree, it’s good meat (though the tendency is to err on the side of rare), and a NOLA burger, smothered in bourbon brown-sugar mushrooms, caramelized onions, and Swiss cheese, makes you wish more places were revisiting this classic combo (Hardee’s mushroom swiss anyone?).
Waterfront Hotel’s desserts come straight from hazy childhood days—s’mores, a brownie sundae, chocolate chip cookies and a malted vanilla shake, a root beer float—though if Mom spiked my shake or float with Captain Morgan or Jameson (we didn’t have Stoli Vanilla back then), I didn’t realize it.
By 9 p.m., it should be noted, the Waterfront Hotel hums with an additional three or four tables full of guests, including one distinctly underage infant (who knew this was a family place too?). A band is scheduled to go on at 10. Happy hour has come and gone, but the beers are still affordable. WTF indeed.
The Waterfront Hotel is open for lunch and dinner Monday-Friday and brunch and dinner Saturday-Sunday. Running out of “waterfront” jokes