Two p.m. is a peculiar time for a bar to open on a Saturday. Late for the lunch rush, but well before happy hour. On Main Street in Ellicott City, you don’t need a clock to know when the day’s 14th hour is approaching—just glance toward The Judge’s Bench. There you’ll see people start to, if not line up, mill about in anticipation of the front door’s unlocking. By a few ticks past two, most of the stools around the large, semi-oval bar will be, as they have been for years, cheerfully occupied.
Once a mom-and-pop grocery store where judges from the original Howard County courthouse would come for a cold drink they’d enjoy on a nearby bench, the bar has been a beloved downtown institution since 1978. (Current owners Michael and Jane Johnson bought it in 2007.) While it largely escaped the catastrophic damage inflicted on so many of the city’s businesses by a devastating flash flood last July, its doors were shuttered for more than a month.
There’s nothing particularly special about the place, unless you count a diverse rotating roster of craft beer, 280-plus kinds of whiskey (including what it claims is the “largest selection of single malts in the state”), or a slew of solid bar-food options that boasts a surprising number of vegan offerings. Actually, we do consider that special, which is why we wanted to revisit after it reopened.
We found the scene, service, and food to be, thankfully, unchanged. Chalkboards on either side of the bar display what’s available from the 17 taps, and the friendly bartender was more than happy to offer a sample to anyone with questions about a brew.
We needed some sustenance to go with our suds, so we started with Buffalo wings and vegetarian pot stickers. Odd bedfellows, for sure, but that’s a theme within a menu that includes everything from pizzas and quesadillas to a Reuben and a vegan “Gardein” burger. The wings were meaty and physically hot, but not overwhelmingly spicy, though they were slathered with a generous amount of sauce. The pot stickers offered a nice contrast, both in temperature and taste.
An 8-ounce Angus burger was served as we requested (medium rare), which is sadly a rarity in many restaurants these days. It was solid but outdone by the hazelnut-crusted vegan cutlet sandwich, caked in barbecue sauce with caramelized onions, lettuce, and tomato. Even the most carnivorous in our party tried a bite and admitted it was delicious.
When we strolled out around 4 o’clock, nearly every table was filled and nary a barstool available. It doesn’t really matter when you visit The Judge’s Bench—there’s no bad time for a cold beer and a tasty bite.
›› The Judge’s Bench 8385 Main St., Ellicott City, 410-465-3497. Hours: Mon.-Fri. 4 p.m.-2 a.m., Sat. 2 p.m.-2 a.m., Sun. 1 p.m.-2 a.m. Snacks: $3-10.95; sandwiches/wraps: $7.95-10.55.