Ale, ale, the gang’s all here! It’s all about beer (well, food too) at Baltimore’s pubby Wharf Rat.
It was a dark and stormy night. No, really, it was. And damned cold too. All in all, ideal conditions for the illusion of finding the perfect English pub on the streets of . . . Baltimore? Yes, Baltimore - Pratt Street, to be exact, across from the city’s vast new convention center and a 10-minute walk from the busy bulkheads of the Inner Harbor. I refer to the Wharf Rat Restaurant & Brew Pub, where beer is king - and the food too has its regal moments.
Having never been to an actual English pub, I can’t comment one way or the other on the Wharf Rat’s architectural and decorative authenticity. But, being a fellow of strong and hastily formed opinions, I will say that this is what an English pub should look like - and smell like, for that matter. Lot’s of brick and dark wood, lots of well organized clutter on shelves and window ledges, and, best of all, the lovely pungent aroma of freshly brewed beer. The illusion was undermined only by the attire of the patrons: not a stitch of tweed nor an elbow patch in the whole place. Lots of Polartec, but no tweed.
Oh, well. Did I mention the lovely pungent aroma of freshly brewed beer? It mixes very well with the lovely pungent aroma of bangers and mash, or fish and chips, or Mrs. Rooney’s chili - the three dishes that, along with a cheese sampler called “the Ploughman,” comprise the English specialties on the pub’s eclectic and imaginative menu. And here’s the interesting twist: Rather than the food menu suggesting which beer goes best with a given meal, it’s the other way around; the beer menu, in many cases, tells you what food to order with a given brew. Oliver SW1 (named for the postal code in England where Wharf Rat owner Bill Oliver brewed his first batch of ale) “makes great company for burgers and sandwiches,” for instance. And Oliver Best Bitter, one of the pub’s “true and proper” (cask-conditioned) ales, is “a natural with fish and chips.”
On the aforementioned dark and stormy night, I began with the Oliver Blonde Ale, not because it is “brewed with noble Saaz hops” (though I am intrigued by the concept of nobility in hops, or lack of it), but because it goes with anything, the menu told me, and I wasn’t even close to making a decision. The menu was right - the Blonde was a very smooth, lager-like brew that would have gone well (dare I say nobly?) with just about anything. But it was long gone by the time I’d made my admittedly odd dinner choice - the Ploughman - accompanied, as suggested, by the Oliver Ironman Pale Ale. If you’re a cheese hound like me, this would be a delightful meal at any time of day. Heck, I’d eat it for breakfast: generous hunks of brie, Stilton and cheddar, crowded by an equally generous pile of salad and two multi-grain rolls. The disposable plastic condiment cups (chutney, mustard and vinaigrette) unnecessarily cheapened the presentation, I think, but it was nevertheless a splendid and satisfying meal. The Ironman was too bitter for my taste, though, so I had it replaced with a much lighter, crisper draught - the Summer Light, which ended up giving the Blonde a run for her money.
On a later visit, this time accompanied by my Significant Other, the beautiful and talented Miss Becky Sue Reber, I had a chance to sample another recommended combination - Henry VIII’s Meatloaf and the Oliver Irish Red. Quite a pair, it turned out. Ol’ Red is a big, strong, smooth-talkin’ lad - one of my new best friends, in fact - and the two great slabs of Italian-sausage-based meatloaf were downright transcendental. Becky was equally smitten with the bangers and mash, though she couldn’t be of any help in sampling beer (not a beer drinker, she - yet somehow the relationship endures). So, dutiful and thorough chap that I am, I hunkered down one more time with the beer menu, and found this irresistible description of what turned out to be an exquisite brew, Oliver Harvest Ale: “A rich blend of pale, crystal and chocolate malts, spiced with imported East Kent Golding and Fuggles hops.”
Who, I ask you, could resist such a thing? I mean . . . Fuggles? On a dark and stormy night in Baltimore, how can that be anything but good?
There are actually two Wharf Rat locations in Baltimore - one, described here, at 206 W. Pratt Street (410-244-8900, a few blocks from the Inner Harbor); and one at 801 S. Ann Street (410-276-9034, one block east of Broadway at Lancaster Street) in Fells Point. The latter, open from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday, is more strictly a pub, with limited table seating and a limited menu (appetizers, crabcakes, burgers, sandwiches, etc.). The Pratt Street location has a separate dining room that is open from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and till 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The bar is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Appetizers $3.50–$7.95; sandwiches $6.75–$10.95; entrees $11.50–$21.25. Major credit cards accepted.