337-7210, towsontavern.com
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History repeated itself in Towson earlier this year when Brian and Scott Recher’s Towson Tavern opened at 516 York Road. This latest venture from the Rechers, who with their brother Steve co-own the Recher Theater and the Rec Room, has taken the space last occupied by the Rec Room pool hall back to its original, albeit 18th-century, use: Recher’s Towson Tavern stands on the ground of the original Towson Tavern, one established in the late 18th century by Ezekiel Towson.
Despite the site’s history, the only visible nods to the tavern’s heritage are the vintage black-and-white photos of old Towson landmarks that line the wall above a row of upholstered booths. Everything else in the restaurant appears burnished, glowing, and brand new, from the pressed metal ceiling above the booths to the warm wood of the bar to the glow of the pendant lamps. Six televisions—some above the bar, others mounted to the wall in a small lounge area—are tuned to sports, an apparent draw for customers who choose to have their dinner and drinks at the bar. The noise level resulting from this can make conversation challenging, particularly for an establishment that aims for upscale casual.
Although Towson is peppered with student-friendly drinkeries that serve food, Towson Tavern is clearly aiming for a slightly older clientele with more grown-up tastes and deeper pockets. Burgers are served here, but they are listed on the menu with their now de rigueur pedigree (Creekstone Farms Black Angus Chuck from Kansas) and a matching price tag—a whopping $16, which comes in slightly higher than many of the best gourmet burgers around town. Popcorn ($4), that bar-snack staple, is laced with black-truffle sea salt. The restaurant even offers fillet tartar (served with an egg, sunny-side up), a throwback not seen on too many menus these days.
Overall, however, the menu promises bistro-style dishes without delivering a lot of bistro style. Case in point is the spring leek stew ($7), which hints at rustic charm but ends up a mild broth of leeks and potatoes dosed with a shot of chili oil. Heat does not necessarily equal flavor, and the oil feels out of step with the rest of the dish, which is respectable if not dynamic. A more nuanced use of herbs or spice to boost the natural sweetness of the braised leeks would be better.
The same heavy-handedness transforms a lovely Duroc pork tenderloin ($24) into something much different and less appealing with the application of a much too sweet and jammy apricot demi-glace that smelled and tasted more like berries than tangy apricot. The meat itself was first rate, and while apricots and pork aren’t an unusual (or unwelcome) combination, a more subtle treatment would make for a more pleasurable entrée.
Most entrées here will be familiar to diners, and it’s hard to argue with comfort food like roast chicken with garlic and lemon or slow-braised short ribs with garlic mashed potatoes. Marinated flank steak with roasted onion and potato ($18) is straightforward and solid, a modest portion of well-seasoned beef cooked to order, sliced thin, and served, as all items are, on oversized white china. Other dishes—an overflowing bowl of arugula salad ($7), a fillet of salmon served over wilted greens ($19)—come across as competent, if a little generic. This becomes an issue mostly when entrées creep past the $20 mark, and the group of chain restaurants just a few blocks north at Towson Town Center operate on the more-bang-for-your-buck philosophy.
Still, the Towson Tavern has far more charms than a chain. The staff makes up for any inexperience with a desire to make things right. When the arugula salad appears to be missing its requisite asparagus, a manager brings out a small plate of the lost vegetable to be added to the greens. When a diner leaves the pork mostly untouched, it is removed from the bill without request and with apology. Desserts are brought in from Rosedale’s Yia Yia’s Bakery, the modest wine list offers affordable pours by the glass, and the free valet-parking service is a thoughtful gesture in what can be a challenging area to park (also thoughtful are the staff who will tell you about the service when you make a reservation).
In the last few decades, there hasn’t been an abundance of midrange, non-chain, non-student-centered dining in Towson, so even one with a few growing pains is welcome. The Towson Tavern is currently working on a larger kitchen, which one hopes will deliver slightly stronger offerings, but with the same quality basic ingredients and the same amount of warm service.
The Towson Tavern is open for dinner seven days.