The Owl Bar in the Belvedere, over the years one of Baltimore's favorite drinking spots, has had more than its share of menu changes. But after stints as a casual Italian restaurant and a Southwestern restaurant -- the last two -- the Owl Bar has gone back to its roots, which happen to be bar food.
This, it seems to me, had the potential for disaster. More fried calamari, Buffalo wings and Maryland crab dip? Oh, please.
But while bar food, brick-oven pizzas and sandwiches are the backbone of the Owl Bar's current menu, there's also a small section of entrees that are as good as you'll find at any traditional American restaurant. And the bar food itself is excellent.
That calamari, for instance, is beautifully tender, with a light golden crust and a fresh-tasting marinara for dipping. The sauce tastes fresh because it's made in house, which is the advantage of eating at a bar that's part of a catering firm. The kitchen makes its own marinara, not to mention everything else from the salad dressing to the chocolate sauce on the triple chocolate cake.
The shellfish sampler shines with large pink shrimp, steamed with Old Bay and peeled except for the tails; grit-free mussels; and briny-sweet oysters. Those same fine shrimp can be found lounging on a fat piece of toasted Italian bread drenched in garlic butter.
The kitchen makes good use of what's in the market now with a layered appetizer of yellow and red tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil. The vegetables that come with main courses are admirably flavorful and bright: squash and carrots and small florets of broccoli. Penne is tossed with summer tomatoes, roasted red pepper slivers, spinach and local corn.
But these play second fiddle to the most gorgeous hunk of prime rib this side of, well, the Prime Rib. It's roasted and then grilled to order; the tender pink meat is robust and not overly seasoned, so the beefy flavor stands on its own. The Owl Bar's crab cakes, the other house specialty, are fat mounds with plenty of lump crab meat adroitly seasoned by the kitchen.
Both come with mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables, although I suppose you could substitute the slim, fresh-cut french fries and coleslaw you get with sandwiches. (They might work better with crab cakes than the mashed potatoes and vegetables.)
Sandwiches, including wraps, are the mainstay of the menu. There are the classics, like the crab cake and an overstuffed shrimp salad sandwich I vaguely remember from past visits. Then there are slightly more cutting-edge selections, such as a vegetarian sandwich of portobello, avocado, squash and more. I don't know if I'm ready for a squash sandwich, but I shouldn't knock it till I try it.
Attention is paid to the looks of the food, which puts the Owl Bar one up on a lot of pubs. The crusty little rolls are served in a cigar box, a surprisingly appealing presentation. The desserts are decorative as well, with squiggles of sauce and swirls of whipped cream. These are major desserts: densely rich, with portions big enough for two.
So what's not to like? Very little. The wine list is short to the point of being almost nonexistent. There are probably more beers on draft than bottles of wine offered, although I didn't count. When the kitchen cooks with garlic, there's enough garlic to knock your socks off -- for some that may be a plus, but the garlic overwhelmed the vegetables in the pasta.
The service is fine and dishes come out in a timely way, at least when the restaurant isn't too busy. Reservations are necessary on the weekends, particularly if you want to sit in the no-smoking area. This is the small area just before you enter the bar proper, with high wooden booths and a few tables. Go in a little further and you'll see the long oak bar, the owls the bar is famous for, and the stained-glass panels -- all elements that don't change even when the menu does.
There's a small selection of entrees that are as good as you'll find at any traditional American restaurant.
Where: 1 E. Chase St., Baltimore
Hours: Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner, brunch Sunday
Prices: Appetizers, $6.95-$11.95; main courses, $10.95-$25.95
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *