The new Mt. Washington Tavern is like that girl you went to high school with who seemed to graduate directly into a pair of mom jeans. She's reliable and solid, and you trust her to help with the kids in a pinch. But you won't be asking her for fashion-or for that matter, dieting-advice anytime soon.
Suddenly she shows up with a new haircut, wearing skinny jeans and hip leather boots. She carries herself like a gal from Manhattan or L.A. You hardly recognize her.
But when she opens her mouth, there's that familiar Bawlmer drawl.
Likewise, when the stuffed pork chop ($24) you ordered at the Mt. Washington Tavern arrives, you move your gaze from the peaked tray ceiling with its giant drum lights, skylights, and clerestory windows, from the sleek marble bar and surrounding walls that resemble a weathered Nantucket summer house, to your plate and realize this is still the place you've known and loved all these years. Sure enough, the pork chop is plenty for two meals. It's sliced along the side and belches a heap of cornbread stuffing. The platter on which it's served is dusted with dried parsley, and the sides-risotto laced with Parmesan and mushrooms, and green beans-are identical to the sides on your companion's Old Bay-dusted plate of seared scallops ($28).
You might poke the pork with a knife and fork, considering the best approach. It's good meat, Duroc pork from a local farm. It may be on the dry side, but there's some nice pan gravy to swirl it around in. And that cornbread stuffing is moist and mealy. The glistening sauteed green beans have turned the corner from emerald to army green, but maintain their crunch and are garnished with sweet bits of shallot. The risotto has hardened around the edges, but it's a bonus side, after all, with all that cornbread.
Across the table, six tender day-boat scallops resting in a rich, buttery lobster-based sauce (and yes, you can taste the lobster) are nearly as filling as the pork. And at least three of the plump bivalves are destined to become tomorrow's lunch.
The new Mt. Washington Tavern is indeed sleek and gorgeous. The architect-designed space retains the footprint and a good deal of the atmosphere of its predecessor, lost to a fire a little over a year ago. Before it burned, the place had a schizophrenic persona, divided into a dark and rustic front room featuring a long bar for a convivial after-work beer, and a back room which had an airy, circa-1978 fern-bar (or maybe a hotel-lobby?) feel with its potted palm trees and tile floors.
The new tavern has a zinc-clad bar in the front, rustic beams, and walls built with barn siding. The wood, stone, and metal give the place that old-meets-new air where you expect a sturdy beer list and plenty of cocktails that feature things like elderflower and fresh herbs (as indeed they do).
The Chesapeake Room in the back, also accessible by a side entrance, is large and bright, with white painted trim and bleached birch floors, large banquets around the edges and smaller tables in the center beneath the skylights. The room is warmed by a stone fireplace with a gas log, and the walls are decorated with photos of watermen and fishing boats on the bay. A large vintage sign for Cambridge, Md. crabs hangs above the marble bar, and there's a copper-topped communal table surrounded by stools.
We had much better luck food-wise when our expectations were scaled more to a seat at the bar than a fine-dining date. The restaurant, as it always has, delivers heaping portions of nachos ($9.50) coated in melted cheese and sour cream, sharp, sliced green and red jalapeños hidden within. The steamed mussels ($10), which came topped with a pile of skinny fries, were laced with smoky bits of bacon and diced tomatoes. As we neared the bottom of the bowl, we were served a hunk of crusty white bread for sopping up the broth. The oyster po'boy ($12) suffered from a somewhat eccentric presentation: an open-faced baguette lined with bright-orange melted cheddar and strips of bacon, topped with a row of fried meaty Blue Points. Slathered with the chipotle remoulade, the sandwich was delicious, so aesthetics took a backseat.
The two-page dinner menu is dense with options, from an aged Delmonico steak ($26) and a vegetarian portabella mushroom Wellington ($17), to plenty of sandwich and burger choices. There's even a separate listing of grilled cheeses ($7.50-$9).
There's an eclectic selection of desserts, including a stack of gooey chocolate pancakes ($7) and sweet eggrolls with fruit ($7). An oozing slice of sweet potato pie ($6) was topped with buttery toasted pecans, and we were told that the crust was made with cinnamon-roll dough. The house-made salted caramel ice cream ($7) made a perfect accompaniment.
The tavern is clearly back in the game. On three random visits, the downstairs bar was busy catering to a young-ish crowd, and the Chesapeake Room was likewise filled: a group of middle-aged men who might have been golf buddies, a couple in work attire who looked like they'd met up for a quick bite before heading home to let the dog out, a few young families.
On two visits, the upstairs Sky Bar was hosting special events. One of those events, incidentally, was for folks from the private schools in Roland Park, thus confirming my suspicion that the Mt. Washington Tavern has long enjoyed a built-in fan base. In fact, the iconic Official Preppy Handbook called the tavern a "lacrosse hangout," adding, "Preps live here," back in 1980.
Plenty of today's prep school grads and parents, of course, care about where their food comes from and appreciate words like "Duroc" and "fingerling" on a menu; they prize an obscure brewery (indeed, may even have one of their own in the mancave). But what's important here is not so much the food as the tradition.
Yes, there are places in town where the burger is juicier, the pork more local, and the scallops treated with more respect. But the Mt. Washington Tavern has been around for a lot longer than those newbies. And man, is she looking good these days.
Mt. Washington Tavern is open Monday through Saturday, 11 A.M.-2 A.M., Sunday, 10:30 A.m.-10 P.M.