When McCabe’s suddenly closed in 2009, it looked like another longtime Baltimore tavern had given up the ghost. But, surprise, the Hampden neighborhood bar/restaurant came back to life in April with new owners, one of whom is the chef.
Partners Dan McIntosh and Patrick Ito, who heads the kitchen, haven’t changed the interior much. The dining room off the bar area looks scrubbed for company but essentially has the characteristic brick walls, dark wood, and forest-green color scheme of years past. Paper napkins attest to its pub setting.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference is the food (not that the old place wasn’t known for its great hamburgers and crab cakes). This go-round, the proprietors are featuring more locally sourced ingredients and adding some updated twists to the menu.
For instance, that plump burger now comprises Springfield Farm grass-fed, natural beef and is enfolded in a brioche bun with a choice of cheese, including cheddar, Gruyère, blue cheese, and provolone, and a pile of salty, delicious fresh-cut fries. Extras like bacon, fried egg, and sautéed mushrooms ($1.50 each) are welcomed pluses.
The earnest crab cake, more shredded crab than lump, is still a competitor with a broiled round ball of crabmeat hinting of Old Bay. You can pair it, as we did, with a petite filet, that is beautifully pink, fork tender, and courteously sliced for you.
McCabe’s does well with its comfort-food leanings, offering a roasted half chicken whose skin crackles with an earlier applied herb-butter that also permeates the bird. The meat is so juicy and succulent that you want to—and do—devour it, pan gravy and all.
A side order of mac and cheese surpasses ordinary with a silky cheese sauce coating teeny shell pasta, making the dish more delicate than heavy. Ever-changing specials reflect other homey creations like a slow-cooked brisket and a savory chicken-black bean soup that reminds us of mom’s chili—or the way we wished she had made it!
Still, the kitchen likes to step into this century with items like vegetarian polenta lasagna, an arugula pesto marinated chicken breast sandwich, and a blackened tuna club (a recent special).
You can start your meal with appetizers like Maryland-style steamed shrimp and grilled chicken wings, but we liked the crab and spinach dip with long ovals of crostini for sharing. While the dip took an awfully long time to get to the table, it arrived pleasantly hot and gooey in a small earthenware crock (though we found it more spinachy than crabby).
Desserts are made in house, our server told us, and were incorporating the season’s fresh fruits when we visited. A strawberry shortcake was tempting, but we were happy with the warm peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream and mint-leaf garnish.
Service is casual, efficient, and friendly. We were greeted warmly and bid cheerful good-byes. Our waitress even made a point of following us to the door after lunch one day and saying, “Have a great afternoon. Thank you for joining us.”
Word must be getting out. The small dining room was packed on a recent weeknight with neighbors, people on their way home from work, and groups of friends. There are no pretensions here—just good food and good company.