The Fells Point favorite is mostly as remembered, and that’s just fine
Published: October 19, 2011
I don’t remember the last time I was at Henninger’s Tavern.Â But I do remember the first time, back around 1990. The dining room was painted green then (it’s deep red now), the color of copper turned verdigris peeking through vintage mirrors, framed black and white photos, and sepia-toned oils. I remember the pink delirium tremens-style elephants hanging like mobiles from the ceiling. If I don’t remember anything I ate except the fried oysters in sweet Pernod sauce, I’ll confess to being more interested in my date, now my husband of 17 years. We loved Henninger’s then—for its snugness, its salty Fells Point feel, those oysters—and then I moved away for nearly 10 years and only made it back sporadically after I returned to Baltimore.
While Henninger’s has its enthusiastic cheerleaders, it’s also easy to see how the restaurant might be overlooked. Unlike Pierpoint’s or Peter’s Inn, whose proximity to busier thoroughfares reminds diners of the restaurants’ existence, Henninger’s location on Bank Street is tucked away like a hidden speakeasy. You have to know it’s there to be there, and arriving on an early fall evening, the sky already dark, makes you feel like the only one in on the secret . . . until the door swings open and a customer in shirt and tie holds the door for you and enthuses about the Cornish game hen before he and his date go off to their next event.
The rest of Henninger’s customers—the folks watching baseball playoffs at the bar, the family with the sullen teenager in the dining room—are more comfortably dressed, though the menu itself reflects a certain and classic formality. The bar menu offers three sandwiches—crab cake, grouper, and an oyster po’boy—but there’s no mistaking the entrees for lite fare.
That Cornish hen ($22), plump and meaty at 20 ounces and a stranger on any other menu in town, is made even more substantial with the addition of a savory bread pudding laced with GruyÃ¨re. The chicken is very good, but the pudding is what will make you order the dish again. A standard 8-ounce filet mignon ($28), cooked to order, but oddly underwhelming (especially for the price), is also overshadowed by its side: a gratin of thinly sliced potatoes, caramel-brown and fork-tender.
Henninger’s has a deft hand with seafood, both in preparation and performance. The silvery whole branzinos at the next table made us wish we had opted for the broiled whole fish, though we were swayed by the black bean and creamy rice, almost akin to cheese grits, that accompanied a perfectly prepared salmon fillet ($23). The shellfish pasta ($22) is visually stunning, a crown of mussels, clams, and curly pink shrimp drizzled with roasted tomato sauce as spicy and rich as rouille. Piling the crustaceans on top of the pasta, however, makes for a bit of tricky eating. If you attack the seafood first, you’re left simply with a bowl of linguini, but mixing the two also makes for a bit of a mess. Call it a delicious conundrum.
When it comes down to it, the pan-fried breaded oyster ($9) appetizer remains my favorite dish at Henninger’s, and not just in memory. I had forgotten about the pronounced sweetness of the Pernod-fennel sauce, but despite that, the flavors work, especially when you add the verdant wilted spinach into the mix. A tartly dressed Caesar salad ($6) is also worth revisiting, but the dessert list feels tired, a dated amalgam of Tollhouse or peanut butter pie, brownie sundaes, and flourless chocolate cake (there are also several frozen desserts not made in house).
Henninger’s offers three drafts on tap (including Pilsner Urquell and Sierra Nevada the night we visited), a tepid wine list (which you might expect to be funkier, given the menu and the number of glasses being sipped in the dining room), and small, but inexpensive, cocktails. The bar has a television for watching and another one to simply gaze at and remember when TVs had knobs and were covered in fringed antimacassars, as this one is.
Nostalgia could be a byword at Henninger’s, but gratefully, it’s not. And while our meal itself didn’t dazzle us, the food was solid if perhaps a little overpriced. Nonetheless, it feels good to be eating at Henninger’s. Service was excellent—gentle, warm, and patient—and there are few restaurants around town that leave you with the feeling that your meal is being made especially for you. At Henninger’s, it’s personal.
Dinner served Tuesday–Saturday. Good word, “antimacassars”
> Email Mary K. Zajac