What makes Duda's such an amiable pub? Why do I want to call it a pub, when we don't have pubs in this country, we have bars? When's a bar a pub? When nobody in it has drunk too much? Or is too stridently on the make? When nobody mumbles or screams? Duda's feels civilized. Let's call it a pub.
One of its charms is a picturesque Fells Point location, across from a tall abandoned warehouse, with iron shutters at its apertures, some open, some shut. To the west, dead brick buildings reminded me of a World War II nostalgia movie about Belgium. The cobblestoned street could be England.
In the snug inside, beyond the screen door, a bar takes up the right side of a long, narrow room. Pushing through, you can easily brush the back of whoever is sitting on the bar stool nearest the door.
On the side where the sun sets -- and some sense of what the sun is doing comes through stained-glass windows -- there are seven tables. If you're not early, they're taken. The first time we looked in, we gave up hope of getting a table and left. We went twice more, arrived by 6:30, and both times had better luck.
At the tables everyone huddles near everyone else within walls hung with beer ads and old photos of Baltimore. Simple, creamy white glass lamp shades over the bar let through a pleasant, warm light.
The menu is elementary -- appetizers (mostly deep-fried), burgers, sandwiches and such standard American entrees as New York strip steaks, crab cakes and grilled fish. Before deciding on anything, we ordered pints of Oxford draft ale ($2.25), made by the British Brewing Co. in Glen Burnie. (My husband fell in love with Duda's Oxford ale one evening with friends. It was the ale that drew him back, and two of us with him.)
Then we ordered some onion rings ($2.75), Cajun cat fish sticks ($3.95) and clam strips ($3.95), only to realize we should have been smarter. Good deep-fries require talent, experience and commitment. Ask a tempura chef or a fritto misto maestro. Here, everything tasted mass-produced. Crisp and hot, but featureless. The onion rings were largely batter around a wet thread of onion that slipped out on the first bite. There was nothing Cajun about the cornmeal-crusted, moist, thin pieces of cat fish that tasted faintly old, and the clams were deep-fried rubber bands.
Our main courses were simpler affairs to prepare, and we fared considerably better with them. Two chunky deep-fried crab cakes ($16.50), light on breading, had been molded out of both regular and back fin crab, and were lightly spiced. Our guest remarked that while she liked them well enough, "my mother's are a whole lot better." Ah, but our guests' judgments are often more severe than our own.
We were surprised that all three fish in a mixed grill of tuna, mako shark and blue marlin ($10.95) tasted the same. Each was about the size of an espresso saucer, about 3/8 -inch thick, and plain. We ordered a grilled 14-ounce New York strip steak ($13.95) after debating which was preferable, firm meat or super tender meat in the form of a filet mignon. Medium-rare firm had a vigor and a taste that we liked.
Still, none of the vegetable accompaniments sold us on the strength of the kitchen. There were rectangles of cottony sweet potato, coated in something faintly sweet; new potatoes that tasted cooked hours before; a house salad of mostly iceberg lettuce served with a chemical-tasting house dressing, and conventional coleslaw.
Then it turned out only one sweet was available, a narrow, unsatisfactory slice of creamsicle cheesecake ($2.75) with the artificial orange flavors of Dixie cups and Lifesavers.
Disappointed, we went home and reconnoitered. Duda's is a bar. Or a pub. Or something between a bar and a pub. Do the gods maybe not intend first courses, vegetables or sweets to be eaten there? Is its destiny burgers and sandwiches with beer? Having liked our crab cakes and steak, and having liked the people who served us, we wanted to have more to recommend.
Next time around, we put on jeans, thought bar thoughts, arrived hungry for food to go with Oxford ales and settled on a hamburger with cooked onions over it ($4.25 for the hamburger, $1 for the onions), and a smoked fish sandwich ($5.25). We also tried a cup of broccoli soup ($1.75).
While the broccoli-flavored soup was a mistake (it was mostly heavy cream), we were right to choose a hamburger -- a half-pound of delicious, medium-rare chopped beef, terrific with ketchup and onions. And we loved the chopped smoked bluefish with onions and herbs. A rich, intense and heady mix, it made a gorgeous foil for beer. Success.
& Next: Piccolo Italiano
1600 Thames St., Fells Point, 276-9719
Mondays to Fridays 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturdays from 12:30 p.m., with light fare 11 p.m. to midnight
ACCEPTS: D, MC, V
FEATURES: Varied menu
NO-SMOKING AREA: No
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No