Tanya Gralto and Scott Lanphear watch TV at the recently re-opened… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
No one held their breath when Ron Singer bought Canton's Red House Tavern last summer and promised a major renovation.
The bar, which had been closed since 2009, hadn't really registered in the neighborhood consciousness. When it was open, it was known more for its loud live music and karaoke. And Singer's most popular bar, Leon's in Mt. Vernon, is known for its shabby chic — to put it kindly.
But when Singer says in the new ads that "only the name is the same" at Red House, he's not bluffing. Open since March, the bar is a model renovation: handsome, personable, great beer selection, a brand-new menu and top-notch service. In my eyes, it's one of the best new bars of the year.
John Harris and his family opened Red House in 2005, but business was so slow four years later that the family had to organize a last-ditch fundraiser before finally deciding to close it down.
The bar was begging to be remade. It had a recognizable facade — the namesake red brick — and was strategically located, for a bar, on Essex Street. at Foster and Patterson Park avenues.
Singer swooped in last summer and snatched it up for $325,000, telling a reporter at the time that he had plans turn it into a casual corner bar with regular acoustic music and dart leagues.
He's gone far beyond that.
He restored the Victorian-style bar and the fireplace, and added a tin ceiling above the bar, several high-top tables, an electronic jukebox and a book exchange. The fireplace is in a homelike setting, with a few armchairs and shelves of books beside it. When I went, there were a few hundred National Geographics as well as some secondhand Tom Clancys and Michael Crichtons. Blondie and Johnny Cash blared from the jukebox and the two new TVs played soccer and an Orioles game.
While the outside is still the trademark red, the inside is dominated by oaks and olives. Though Singer's described it as "a Boulder Colorado Ski Lodge," with its muted lighting, it looks more like a seasoned bookstore. But the bar is otherwise spotless.
The most notable upgrades can be seen on the menu.
The bar's six draft lines now include two excellent craft brews, Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA from Delaware, and Magic Hat, whose brewer is based in Vermont. By the bottle, Red House carries Blue Moon, Natty Boh, Amstel and six others.
Prices are reasonable during the 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. happy hour: $1.50 Natty Boh, $2 Miller Lite on draft and two-for-one rail drinks. On Saturdays, the bar has $5 martinis.
The food isn't just midnight fare anymore; it now includes duck nachos and gnocchi — hard to find even in Little Italy. Red House's fries, which come with vinegar and caked-on Old Bay seasoning, would give Thrashers a run for its money.
The service, provided by one bartender and one waiter when I was there, was exceptional. Our bartender was chatty without being intrusive. And more important, she was attentive, even checking in with customers before she went out for a smoke.
All these changes bode well for the Red House 2.0's future. When I was there, there were about 10 people inside, mostly crowding at the bar, though a few sat at the tables noshing on fries.
They probably weren't old Red House fans, since it had been closed for so long. Singer has made things easier for the bar by reaching out to the neighborhood with weekend barbecues that have complimentary Boh and food.
But even if he hadn't, the bar would have brought people in. With its open front door and a jukebox softly broadcasting "Heart of Glass" to passers-by, it exudes friendliness. Though the book exchange suggests pretentiousness, it works here, adding to the bar's personality.
Neighborhood bars often have few ambitions beyond filling a void on the block or providing a hangout to watch the game. Red House raises the concept to a new level. With its excellent food and beer, polished atmosphere and great service, it's what a casual night outside the home calls for.
If you go
Red House Tavern, at 2239 Essex St., is open from 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week. Call 410-522-0015.