(Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
Bushmill Tavern is the restaurant/bar that every neighborhood wishes it had. There's nothing fancy about the place, from the bare bones decor to the burger-centric menu, but thanks to friendly service and a ton of talent in the kitchen, locals could eat at Bushmill every night and never get bored.
The Abingdon restaurant opened in February. In May, chef Mark Littleton took over in the kitchen. Littleton, who developed a loyal following in the city during his stints at Annabel Lee Tavern and the now-shuttered Adam's Eve, keeps the menu casual but shows off his cooking chops with top-notch execution and creative touches to standard dishes.
Scene & Decor With lighting that's a little too bright and booze-sponsored decor (think beer posters and neon signs), you won't mistake Bushmill Tavern for a fine-dining establishment. Fortunately, it doesn't need to be.
When we arrived, around 7 p.m. on a Wednesday, the bar was mostly full, though only a few tables were occupied. The crowd remained steady while we were there, but it was easy to imagine a packed house on weekend nights.
Drinks Taking a cue from our surroundings, we ordered a couple of beers from the tap: a Yuengling ($3) and a Fat Tire ($6.50). The Yuengling was just what we expected but we were disappointed to discover that the Fat Tire was a touch flat and watery. It was drinkable — we even ordered a second — but it wasn't quite as crisp as the beer should have been.
Luckily, that slightly watery beer was the worst thing that came to our table all night.
Appetizer Bushmill's appetizer list is chock-full of beer-friendly standards, from crab balls to Buffalo chicken dip. But it was something less expected, the shrimp toast ($8), that caught our eye.
Crunchy on the outside and filled with shrimp-flecked cream cheese, the shrimp toast was savory and fun. Instead of regular bread, the kitchen used oversized, sturdy slices of Texas toast, which crisped nicely as it fried. On the side, chunky marinara sauce brightened up each bite.
Entrees A trio of sliders ($8) came with a choice — pick three of four options. The choices — bacon cheeseburger, meatball, pulled pork and crab cake — made that a tough decision. As loath as we are to turn down a crab cake, we opted for the three meaty choices. We didn't regret it.
The, thin, diner-style burger patty was topped with gooey cheese and crispy bacon, each element just right. Ditto for the pulled pork; its sweet, honey-based barbecue sauce was sticky and satisfying.
Our only complaint came with the meatball, and it was a minor quibble. We loved the seasoning and the mozzarella-topped meatball was cooked nicely, but we would have appreciated a little more marinara. The slider was smeared with a bit of red sauce, we just would have liked more.
As much as we enjoyed the sliders, the surf and turf club ($13.50) was the star of the show. Again, the kitchen pulled out the Texas toast, layering chunky lobster salad and grilled flank steak between three slices of the thick bread.
Both the meat and the lobster were well-seasoned and generously portioned. The sandwich was so big, we could barely open our mouths wide enough to take complete bites.
But it was worth the jaw ache. It was one of the best sandwiches we've had in a long time.
Dessert Dessert at Bushmill Tavern is made in house, changing frequently. Our visit coincided with fried banana cheesecake ($6.50) that was sweet, crunchy, a little tangy and left us with a hankering for more state fair-style food.
Service Our waitress was the kind of friendly woman that makes people come back to visit. Down to earth and enthusiastic about the food, she seemed genuinely pleased that we were happy with our meals. She kept our beers full and chatted happily with us as she served the food.
As we ate, we watched her interact with an older couple at another table. They were visiting Bushmill for the second time; as a thank you for their return, the kitchen sent them an extra appetizer.
Their surprise and delight reminded us why Littleton drew such a following when he worked in the city. He understands what makes people tick. Plus, his food — even when it's burgers and sandwiches — is good enough to inspire more than a few return visits.
Back story: Bushmill Tavern opened in Abingdon in February; over Memorial Day weekend, Chef Mark Littleton joined the kitchen. Littleton's capable and creative approach to familiar foods made him a favorite in Baltimore. He's carried those skills with him to Harford County.
Parking: Lot in front
Signature dish: The surf and turf club is a two-tiered giant of a sandwich that puts regular club sandwiches to shame. With lobster salad on top, grilled flank steak on the bottom and Texas toast subbing for regular bread, the sandwich is laughably large — and incredibly tasty.
Where: 4017 Philadelphia Road, Abingdon
Contact: 410-914-5820; bushmilltavern.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily
Credit Cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted
Bottom line: Friendly service and casual bar food cooked with serious skill