Darren Petty, who owns the Natty Boh Lounge and Canton Station with Charley Alfred, said he's been a National Bohemian fan since he was a young man. Short on cash, he chose the famed Baltimore-brewed beer not because of its taste, though it's not bad at all, but because it was cheap - "$3.50 a case warm, four bucks cold."
Natty Boh is no longer brewed in Baltimore, but the love affair between the city and the the beer continues, thanks in part to Petty and Alfred. The mustachioed, circle-headed Natty Boh logo now winks from the walls of the Natty Boh Lounge, which opened in November on the second and third floors above Canton Station.
Petty explained that he got permission to use the name and decorations from Pabst, which now owns Natty Boh, and Todd Unger, who owns the merchandising rights. So far, the decorations aren't overbearing, but Petty said more will be added. I'm hoping for some restraint - being winked at from every angle could be disconcerting.
The building, which Petty and Alfred purchased about six years ago, dates to 1886, Petty said, and once served as a boardinghouse for the brewery across the street, which made Natty Boh from 1868 until the mid-1980s.
The top floors were used for storage and office space until recently. Now they have the look of so many other restaurants in the city: exposed brick walls, pleasantly worn wood floors and silvery ductwork snaking along the ceiling. The third floor, which also has a bar, is more of a lounge, appropriate for drinks and desserts, Petty said.
The first thing one notices upon walking up the steps from Canton Station - aside from all the images of Natty Boh - is the lack of smoke. While Canton Station is more bar than restaurant - and quite smoky - the Natty Boh Lounge strives to be more restaurant than bar, an establishment worthy of the dapper Mr. Boh's approval.
As one would expect, Natty Boh doesn't stray far from classic Maryland fare like crab dip, cream of crab soup and chicken Chesapeake. But it does offer slightly more ambitious dishes including lobster ravioli tetrazzini ($19.95) and filet mignon ($23.95).
As we sat down with our longnecks of Natty Boh (always 99 cents), we admired the plates that diners around us were enjoying. They were piled high with attractive pieces of meat, generous portions of colorful vegetables and mounds of creamy potatoes.
Clearly, efforts were being made in the kitchen. The best thing we tried was baby lamb chops ($8.95), served as an appetizer. They were nestled into a layer of mint jelly in a martini glass. You picked up the chops like lollipops and nibbled - the meat was incredibly tender and flavorful, and after three bites they were, regrettably, gone.
Another appetizer, the clams casino ($7.95), was less successful. The clams were small and rubbery, topped with a layer of melted mozzarella and chewy bits of bacon but not the typical buttery breadcrumbs.
A New York strip dinner ($21.95) was not as tender as the lamb chops but was a generous, flavorful portion. It came with mashed potatoes that were suspiciously creamy and free of lumps - either they had been mashed just about to death or they came from a box. I prefer a little more real potato taste and texture.
A special of shrimp Creole ($16.95) was served over rice with a chunk of warm, soft bread on the side. (The menu called it French bread, but I don't think the French would agree.)
The combination of fat shrimp, green peppers, sauteed onions and tomato paste is hard to mess up, and this version was fine. My only complaint was that the whole thing needed a good stirring - some sections of the bowl were overseasoned, while others didn't have enough flavor.
Desserts are not made in-house at Natty Boh's (though I'm told the kitchen occasionally tackles tiramisu). The crust on our apple pie ($4.50) was soggy, and the entire thing wasn't worth the calories. Other dessert choices include cheesecake, a cannoli and sorbet.
The Natty Boh bar scene grew more lively as the evening wore on. I overheard one young man talking into his cell phone, vowing to swear off women. People were standing by the bar in groups, talking and flirting.
But even if you're not in the mood to flirt, there's no way to avoid being winked at while at the Natty Boh Lounge. That's one of the many charms of the place.
Natty Boh Lounge and Canton Station
1028 S. Conkling St.
Open daily for lunch and dinner
Appetizers, $7.95-$13.95, entrees $14.95-$26.95
** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
[Outstanding:**** Good:*** Fair or uneven:** Poor:*