They all laughed when word got out that its owners were going to replace the upscale bistro Neo Viccino with a sports bar. The only people laughing now are the many, many customers who seem thrilled to have Turp's Sports Bar and Restaurant in the Midtown-Belvedere neighborhood.
When you walk by it, Turp's looks busy all the time; Neo Viccino always looked like an Edward Hopper painting. This turn of events is an illustration of something, surely - of giving people what they want, of the struggling economy. The take-away lesson for me is that, next to location, timing can be the most important ingredient in a restaurant's success.
The whole concept is so obviously exactly right, but maybe the time wasn't right for it before. A "Cheers"-like bar is something a longtime employee has been pitching for years to the management of Jay's Group (which also runs the neighboring Jay's Deli and XS cafe). His dream is now a reality, and no one has ever looked happier being on his restaurant's floor than John Turpin.
I like Turp's a whole lot, and I think it brings more to the neighborhood than Neo Viccino ever did. For one thing, it's much more diverse, and it's as though the neighborhood suddenly realized this and is excited by it. Students from the University of Baltimore were a natural patron base, but the art school gang started coming, too - ironically maybe, and for cheap pitchers of beer, but then for real, and often.
Mostly the sports bar/restaurant balance is in equilibrium. If the Ravens are playing, all bets are off, of course. But at other times, most diners are giving more attention to their tablemates than the televisions.
It gets loud in Turp's but it's a festive and happy din, the sound of people having a good time, and sports-related shouting mostly gets absorbed into the whole. Still, calling your place a "sports bar" endorses behavior in a way that some diners will find obnoxious - something like clapping very loudly after every down in a game that only you are watching. That guy drove us nuts.
The food at Turp's is just good enough, occasionally a bit better, and exactly what anyone coming there would expect (and probably for a few dollars less). Other restaurants in the neighborhood serve aspects of Turp's menu, but not its complete variety - specialty pizzas, burgers, sandwiches and a good selection of fully plated entrees like meatloaf, filet mignon, and roast beef and roast turkey dinners. A Cobb salad is about as fancy as it gets.
The staff and other customers talk up the same half-dozen or so menu items - the wings, which come in nine varieties and which are 30 cents each on Mondays; the 2131 Burger, which is topped with a rich lump-crab cream sauce and could really use some bacon; the cheeseburger macaroni bake, which was described to me as something you might make for yourself at 2 in the morning, drunk - in other words, lovely and amazing; and the drenched onion rings, which are deliciously greasy.
The nugget-size hash-brown trend continues here - Turp's most elaborate version of "tots" gets the bacon, cheddar and chives treatment. It's hard to mess up a tot. Baked next door at Viccino Gourmet, the pizzas here are a good deal, although the toppings on a "loaded" pizza - pepperoni, mushrooms, ground beef - supplied more texture than flavor. A spiced chicken penne dish is filling, agreeable, a little bland, maybe. Likewise the fish and chips, where crispier fries would make a big difference.
But like I said, the food is fine. It looks freshly made, and the people here seem to care about it without making ridiculous claims for it. I don't know that I'd change a thing about Turp's. Except maybe that crazy clapper.
On the menu
* Dredged onion rings - $3.50
* Chicken tenders - $6.25
* Super tots - $5.75
* The 2131 Burger - $9.75
* Loaded pizza - $13.95
* Spiced chicken pizza - $8.95
* Fish and chips - $12.50
Turp's Sports Bar and Restaurant
Where: 1317 N Charles St., Baltimore
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, Amex, Discover
Food: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
Service: *** (3 stars)
Atmosphere: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]