In the beginning (okay, summer 2008), a bar opened along Harford Road with homespun décor, a total smokeshow of a burger, and a killer selection of local craft beer. Its name was Hamilton Tavern, and it was good.
So good, in fact, that it was almost instantly lavished with laurels from this and many other publications: “Best Bar,” “Best Burger,” even “Best Bathroom” for its restrooms wallpapered with pages from literary classics. It was also—though we could hardly have known it at the time—very 2008.
In the summer of 2008, the economy was tanking and the conspicuous consumption of the early aughts was becoming passé. Coupled with the already underway farm-to-table boom, the recession birthed a generation of eateries that showcased a deliberately rustic aesthetic and a menu full of hearty classics served in skillets and Mason jars, a trend that romanticized Depression-era poverty for today’s audience. With antique farm tools adorning the walls, dark wood accents, and a menu full of pub grub, Hamilton Tavern neatly fit this bill, though, to its credit, it never seemed as contrived as some of its brethren.
But time marches on, the economy recovered (right?), and trends evolved. Perhaps more importantly, Hamilton Tavern’s original owners sold the business in 2016 to neighborhood resident Joel Ramos. So what is Hamilton Tavern, version 2019 like?
Pretty much the same, and that is mostly a good thing. The sign above the bar telling patrons not to discuss religion or politics is still there, and perhaps more needed than ever. Brewer’s Art’s Resurrection Ale is still on tap, and the menu still plays to the hits: Natty Boh-battered onion rings full of crunch and bigger than most dog collars; the Crosstown burger, a towering mass of Roseda Farm beef, melted cheddar, and “sticky-spicy” bacon; and crisp, hand-cut potato chips.
But there are subtle signs of change, too, most evident in the chef’s daily specials, which display an inventiveness and finesse that can approach fine dining.
On a recent visit, my dining companion and I split the difference between the classic and the contemporary with my friend ordering the burger, while I opted for the “Fishy Friday” special of pan-seared scallops with polenta gnocchi in a creamy broth studded with local corn and tomatoes, plus house-made chorizo. A mini patty pan squash, hollowed out and stuffed with scallop mousse, provided additional accompaniment.
The burger was its usual stellar self and arrived medium-rare—as ordered—an overabundance of salt in the patty its only flaw. The special, meanwhile, was a revelation, bursting with late-summer flavors and rich textures.
An appetizer special, a late summer plate of fried green tomatoes, encrusted with Utz potato chips and accompanied by corn, crab meat, and a drizzle of spicy chipotle mayo, was similarly decadent.
Executive chef Jeremy Price—a veteran of the late, great Clementine—gets credit for these creations, as he does for adding handmade pasta to the specials rotation and thoughtfully expanding the menu to include the occasional non-Western comfort food dish (a banh mi here, a ramen dish there). These touches help Hamilton Tavern feel relevant and fresh after more than a decade.
HAMILTON TAVERN 5517 Harford Rd., 410-426-1930. HOURS: Sun. 4:30-9 p.m., Mon.-Wed. 4:30-10 p.m., Thurs.-Sat. 4:30-11 p.m., Saturday lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. PRICES: Appetizers: $6-12; entrees: $7-24.