New Mount Vernon diner/bar adds a casual, friendly option with killer fries and omelets

The culinary terrain of Mount Vernon boasts a fair amount of texture. One can dine at the Prime Rib for a traditional, expensive meal or at the Brewer's Art or City Cafe for something more inventive and slightly less pricey; there is no shortage of options for Asian cuisine (The Helmand, Akbar, Thai Landing)-or for serviceable carryout sandwiches and pizza (Milk and Honey, Never on Sunday, Kyro Pizza). To this landscape Tavern on the Hill (900 Cathedral St., [410] 230-5400) adds a diner-like restaurant with a revved-up bar scene.

Opened about a month ago, Tavern on the Hill's all-purpose offerings are not too dissimilar from that of its predecessor, Howard's of Mount Vernon. Appetizers cover a smorgasbord of ethnic options: calamari, quesadillas, chicken pot stickers, loaded tots. Sandwiches, salads, burgers, pasta, and a dedicated hot dog section (embarrassingly entitled "Who Let The Dogs Out?") flesh out the meat of the straightforward menu. The all-day breakfast option, perhaps, distinguishes the restaurant's selection the most.

Also setting it apart-surprisingly-is its relatively ambitious whiskey program, for which affable bar manager Jeff Levy has started a punch-card system. Younger small-batch brands like Basil Hayden's, WhistlePig, Baker's, and Prichard's Double Chocolate are among the options, and 11 varieties of Scotch whisky, including Glenlivet and Johnny Walker 12-year, are also available. On Wednesdays, all whiskeys are discounted by $1.50. The Manhattan ($8.50) we ordered on a recent visit (alas, not a Wednesday) was well-balanced, made with boutique bitters, and served with sidecar containing the remainder of the cocktail shaker's contents.

Another highlight from the bar's offerings-and an important complement to Tavern on the Hill's breakfast selections-is the Bloody Mary ($7.50), which Levy enhances with house-pickled green bean juice; the green beans and Old Bay garnish the exceptionally acidic cocktail. (Not all mixed drinks delight, apparently; a black cherry-peach mojito ($7) was described by a friend as "a Shirley Temple on steroids.") Levy happily discussed his philosophy on Bloody Marys and whiskey while we waited for the rest of our party, and we genuinely enjoyed speaking to him, as we did our extraordinarily friendly server, who greeted us upon entering by singing "Hi!" and curtsying.

Tavern on the Hill's engaging service stands out as much as any of the restaurant's qualities. The waitstaff enthusiastically interacts with customers and each other, creating a pleasant atmosphere-one imagines a good working environment is more likely to produce good food. The service's only hindrance, we've noticed, owes to the sluggish customer base: Inured by persistent lulls, bartenders might dwell too long on the TV or other customers, failing to notice new ones. Levy said that on trivia nights (Tuesdays) the bar gets packed, and he guessed that the beginning of the school year would bring in a steadier crowd.

And for the type of food being served, a college crowd would make sense for Tavern on the Hill-though that should not be considered a reflection on its execution. The turkey slider appetizer ($8.99), three moist turkey meatballs doused with marinara sauce and topped with a patch of provolone, was neatly constructed and tasty, if not terribly exciting and a touch overpriced.

The french fries, however, are worth all $3.99 for an order. Upon an inquiry about the hand-cut spuds, our server humorously compared the thickness of the fry to Burger King's and noted that the kitchen tested out a number of sizes when the restaurant was opening. The size they've settled on, about the thickness of a finger, lends Tavern on the Hill's parsley-sprinkled fries great munching capability, bolstered by the seasonings served with them: salt and vinegar, sour cream and onion, buffalo, and cheddar. The provision of the powders shows thoughtfulness on the part of the restaurant's owner, who we were told works at a food-service company that distributes them.

Our server also noted that Tavern on the Hill's deli meat was notably fresh and high-quality due to the same connection, and the "Three's Company" sandwich ($9.99) proved it to be true.(Asked if it was really, as described on the menu, "three stories high," our server quipped, "maybe for the Littles.") The turkey, corned beef, and roast beef were equally tender, pressed between delicious marbled rye bread, but more Thousand Island dressing might have mitigated the sheer amount of meat in the sandwich. The same was true for the cranberry relish on the tavern turkey sandwich ($9.99), made with thin-sliced turkey and stuffing. A Roseda beef burger ($12.99) was cooked well, but is perhaps not the best presentation of the local meat that we've sampled around town; the bun, the cheese, and the bacon that accompanied it did not elevate the burger or present anything special.

This can't be said of the omelet. We ordered "The Hangover," which our server recommended we try with cheddar and pepper jack. Cubes of ham and mushroom and flecks of chopped bacon were embedded in the melted cheese, folded into one of the best-cooked omelets we've had-the egg was almost crispy on the outside and extremely fluffy. A pool of hot sauce on top of the egg added the perfect heat to the dish, which we must admit would be an excellent hangover meal. Especially if paired with the Bloody Mary.

Tavern on the Hill offers a unique outlet for those who would brunch every day if they could, and that's something different in Mount Vernon. Its menu lacks cohesion when considered together with the bar's upscale whiskey selection, and there is a decided lack of atmosphere in the restaurant's decor. (One wishes they would take a page out of Lost City Diner's book, and that Lost City Diner, with its constrictive hours, would do the same of Tavern on the Hill.) But excellent service, reliable, if basic execution, and a handful of standout offerings make it worthy of repeat trips.

Tavern on the Hill is open Sunday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday 8-2 a.m.

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