More Kitchen Less Bar
Table-side taps and great selection make this Harbor East newbie great for drinking
Published: July 25, 2012
Townhouse Kitchen + Bar
1350 Lancaster St.,  268-0323, townhousebaltimore.com
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Don’t let the name fool you. Despite the order of its moniker, Townhouse Kitchen + Bar sure feels like a watering hole first and a restaurant second.
True, there are high-top tables where you can have dinner. But the warehouse-like space is dominated by a bar that features 40 beers on draft and is as large as an Indy racetrack and just as noisy. If you prefer to imbibe in a slightly more private setting and with a much more limited selection, Townhouse also offers booths with tabletop tap service. Swipe your credit card through the self-checkout screen and the round (32 ounces of your choice of three beers or two ounces of vodka) is on you. Are the booths popular, a server is asked. Yes. “Do people get pretty drunk?” “Uh-huh,” she replies, nodding her head for emphasis.
Townhouse also has an annoying habit of listing prices of only wine by the glass and bottle in a voluminous bar menu that consists of mostly beer and cocktails. Although a server promises drafts are between a reasonable four and six dollars, you shouldn’t have to guess how much your beverage costs, especially when cocktails clock in at 10 bucks. It also makes it difficult for an exceedingly hard-working server who insists on checking prices of your selection before you order. Points to her. Minus points to management.
Of course, none of this means you can’t have a passable meal at Townhouse Kitchen + Bar. Some of the food is quite appealing, particularly several of the smaller plates and sandwiches that feel more like pub grub (crispy calamari, warm pretzel sticks with crab dip, roasted red pepper hummus) than gastro-pub and function as a nibble to accompany your beer and not the other way around. Loaded kettle chips ($8), thinly sliced and made in-house, sprinkled rather than soused in bleu cheese, turn out to be one of those surprisingly addictive snacks, the kind you feel a little guilty about liking so much. Diet be damned. Seared tuna tacos ($12), one of four taco choices, prove a healthier, but no less pleasurable option. They arrive four to an order, each soft taco stuffed to capacity with medium-rare tuna and a nicely tart garnish of pickled cabbage and other vegetables, and nestled in an accordion-like, pleated tray. Perhaps the best accompaniment to a boozy night out, however, is the three little pigs sandwich ($12) whose layers of pulled pork, shaved ham, bacon, and fried egg seem designed to absorb several rounds, though it would be tasty even if you’re a teetotaler.
Townhouse pays admirable attention to presentation in the rectangular plates and deep white bowls that mark contemporary table service, but in the case of the char-grilled skewers, some of this attention veers into gimmickry. A server brings the skewered chicken, bacon-wrapped shrimp or not-so-flavorful beef tenderloin ($12), buffered with a half-lemon, to the table and proceeds to hang it from a hook so that it dangles over a small ramekin of oregano-heavy dipping sauce. He warns of the plate’s heat, but gives no advice how to deconstruct the dish without a) getting burned or b) not having the whole thing fall into the waiting herb bath. It’s a careful procedure and, given the quality of the beef, not worth the effort or the price.
Main dishes show an odd formality for the space and a similar inconsistency in execution. Bacon jam is a welcome, trendy accompaniment in today’s burger mania, but the jam on the just-OK Townhouse burger ($12) reads sweet and lacks the smoky depth this condiment can have. And while miso-glazed cod ($17) sports a mildly spicy, gingery broth, the soupy rice and overcooked, olive-colored broccolini make you wish the kitchen would take the same care it did with the well-turned plate of shrimp and grits ($15).
Dessert choices include more of the ever-popular bacon, here in the form of donuts ($5). Coated in bacon bits and caramelized nuts and served with ice cream, the dessert could work if the donuts didn’t taste like they came from a mix and the bacon took on a more salty-savory role. As it is now, it just feels like a hot mess.
Townhouse Kitchen + Bar is one of several restaurant concepts from Chicago-based Restaurants America, and while Townhouse doesn’t exactly scream “chain,” the food doesn’t really stand out from the numerous watering holes around the city either. The staff is enthusiastic, though; the spot on Lancaster Street proves an attractive one for sidewalk sipping and people watching; and the beer prices are fair, once you find out what they are. I’m not sure, however, that’s enough for a restaurant with “kitchen” in its name.
Townhouse Kitchen + Bar is open seven days a week, for lunch and dinner.
> Email Mary K. Zajac