I've driven by the stately firehouse on the corner of Calvert and Read hundreds of times, often thinking that such a handsome, old building, completed in 1908, would make an awesome space for a restaurant. Apparently, the Hummel family of Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania, had a similar vision, turning the historic site into a gastropub and brewery like no other.
While Baltimore already boasts several gastropubs that lie at the intersection of fine dining and craft beer, Brew House No. 16 (831 N. Calvert St.,  659-4084, brewhouseno16.com) ups the ante on great food and libations and provides a unique ambience connected to the building itself. Best of all, it's a mom-and-pop operation run by brew master Ian Hummel, 26; his dad Harry, 57, the architect who designed the newly renovated interior; and sister Sophea, 27, who handles front-of-the-house duties.
On a recent Friday night, we visited Brew House, which opened its doors in late October, entering through the same archway that fire engine No. 16 used to come and go. The building hasn't been a firehouse since 1989, and its new glass facade with double doors offered a view onto the 75-seat dining room, which was bustling with activity and fully occupied by the time we arrived. Because the restaurant doesn't take reservations yet, we were looking at a 40-minute wait for a table, so we proceeded back to the bar to quench our thirst and take stock of the amazing surroundings.
The cavernous, 2,500-square-foot space impresses both with its existing features as well as the new design elements. The eye is drawn upward a good 50 feet to the original pressed-tin ceiling, which looks as new as the day it was built. Ditto with the hand-laid, one-inch mosaic tiles covering the walls that add a decidedly vintage character. Industrially rendered fish sculptures by Pennsylvania artist Bob Machovec provide some ornamentation—a new addition that is right at home here. Meanwhile, a brass firefighter's pole drops down from a hole in the second floor, which is accessible by a steel spiral staircase at the back. At the moment, the second floor houses offices, but the owners have plans for a German-style banquet hall with long, communal tables. The dining room occupies the front half of the room, while a long, white marble bar and open kitchen sit back to back behind it, sharing space with six stainless steel fermentation tanks where the beer is brewed.
We gawked and pointed like little kids over glasses of the house Autumn Amber (which has recently been replaced by Levels IPA) and Belgian Wit ($5.50), both of which went down smooth and easy. Currently the IPA and the Belgian Wit are in production on site, along with an Espresso Porter, but Brew House also features plenty of other local brews. If beer is not your beverage of choice, it also sports a formidable list of cocktails and a wine list featuring eight reds and eight whites.
As far as the food is concerned, chef Adam Snyder's menu, which fits on one long page, sticks to the local/sustainable/farm-to-table model, including the requisite list of purveyors at the bottom. Formerly of Cunningham's in Towson, Snyder also bakes his own bread and makes his own pickles, and will soon start expanding the house charcuterie offerings as well (current cured offerings include duck and pork Andouille, duck liver pâté, and smoked pork rillettes).
The bacon and oyster pie ($13) appetizer sounded intriguing, and did not disappoint with its stewy blend of parsnips, potatoes, and four whole oysters topped with a golden crust of puff pastry. The only thing missing seemed to be the bacon, though I detected its smoky flavor. The crookneck squash soup ($7) was topped with melted marshmallows and a sprinkling of candied pumpkin seeds that skewed the soup slightly to the sweet side. But it was still full of flavor, and a comforting choice on a chilly night.
For entrees we ordered the Tilghman Island striped bass ($25) and steak frites ($23). The fish was perfectly pan seared, and moist and flaky inside, requiring only a squeeze of lemon for flavor. As an added bonus it was accompanied by a handful of steamed clams over a bed of Israeli couscous and sauteed baby kale. The steak was so tender it did not even require a steak knife, and the hand-cut fries were definitely enhanced by a bath in sizzling duck fat. Though I don't usually like to put any kind of sauce on my steak, the accompanying romanesco sauce with its flavor of roasted red peppers was oddly addictive, and went equally well with the fries.
After all that food, we probably should have quit while we were ahead, but greed got the better of us, and we ended up sharing a piece of the chocolate stout cake (which, unfortunately, is also no longer on the menu). Living up to its name, it was dense, chocolaty, and slightly bitter with the addition of stout syrup and cocoa nibs. Because I'm not a fan of overly sweet desserts, this turned out to be the perfect choice to end the meal, and we kept having "one more bite" until the cake gradually disappeared. Brew House also serves a dessert cheese plate, which we'll have to try next time, as well as several after-dinner drinks.
The Hummels were present throughout the evening, greeting guests, filling in where needed, and offering their own recommendations from the menu. "This first month has been great," says Ian Hummel. "Everyone who's come by is so supportive of a new business." It seems he's tapped into the vibe of Baltimore: Give us great food and beer in a cool, informal setting and we'll definitely be back for more.
Brew House No. 16 is open Monday-Thursday 3 p.m.-midnight, Friday-Saturday 3 p.m.-2 a.m., and Sunday 3 p.m.-10 a.m.