This is not the Mt. Washington Tavern of your college days and frolicking youth. Oh, you’ll still find the preppy crowds at the bar talking lacrosse and hunt clubs, but the surroundings have been given a major facelift that inspires awe if you flash back to the Tavern’s pre-fire days. Then, the bars and dining rooms had a rumpled, worn-shoe look, befitting a structure built in the late 1800s. The floors were uneven, the corridors meandered, and the décor was, well, dated. Ferns, anyone?
Sadly, it took a catastrophe to change the restaurant’s destiny. In October 2011, a multi-alarm blaze ripped through the restaurant, destroying the beloved watering hole.
Co-owners Rob Frisch and Dave Lichty, former bartenders and managers at the restaurant, vowed to rebuild. And so they did, re-opening in November 2012 to ensure that alums could gather, as they have in the past, on the night before Thanksgiving to reconnect with friends.
Now, on the eve of the 138th running of the Preakness Stakes, The Mt. Washington Tavern will once again be in the forefront of another tradition, celebrating the second leg of the Triple Crown. The restaurant—a favorite among the horsy set—had to forgo entertaining race fans last year because of the renovations. They’re happy to pick up the reins again this year.
“We have a lot of friends in the racing office and among the horsemen,” says Frisch, who has worked at the restaurant since 1986. “It’s really fun to get caught up with them.”
But the Tavern isn’t just a bar (actually three bars) for watching sports. It’s also a full-fledged restaurant with two dining rooms—the main Chesapeake Room on the first floor, where the former Garden Room has met the 21st century with bare tables, blond floors, and a communal table; and the second-floor Pimlico Room, which pays homage to the state’s equestrian heritage with jockey memorabilia and a mural of the racetrack’s clubhouse. The food, too, has caught up with modern days with a focus on locally sourced products—at least, for the most part. We have to question why the kitchen would mar a perfectly wonderful hunk of meat with a pale-pink wheel masquerading as a tomato.
Despite the out-of-season garnish, that mound of Black Angus made for a stellar eight-ounce burger. Add your choice of cheese (from blue to Jack) and other toppings, like sautéed mushrooms and guacamole, to enhance the mouthwatering beef.
The appetizers are definitely worth partaking. The warm jumbo-lump crab dip was, indeed, laced with fat shards of crab amid a rich blend of cheddar and cream cheese.
We also really liked the smoked salmon latkes—crispy potato-and-onion pancakes topped with rosy slices of smoked salmon and dill sour cream. The flash-fried calamari stood above its ubiquitous counterparts with zingy cherry-pepper rounds and Thai dipping sauce.
On one visit, our server brought our salad before our appetizers. We’re not sure why it arrived early, but we dug into the mound of field greens laden with red and golden beet disks, crumbled feta, marinated red onions, and pumpkin seeds. The dressing, called a “citrus vinaigrette,” was also very good. The description is confusing, though. This dressing had the consistency of a hollandaise sauce, not the traditional oil-and-vinegar preparation. A word about our waitress, she had to be one of the most taciturn servers we’ve ever encountered. She showed no emotion, performing her duties in a perfunctory, disinterested manner. But she got the job done. As we nestled next to the cozy fireplace in the Chesapeake Room conversing with friends, maybe it’s just as well she wasn’t bombarding us with fake chitchat and interest in our lives.
The entrees here exceed expectations. They are beautiful, generous portions. The “Red, Black, and Bleu” featured a hunky 10-ounce blackened filet mignon, smothered with caramelized red onions and melted blue cheese. It came with a tomato (don’t get us started again) stuffed with sautéed spinach and feta, and a phalanx of roasted fingerling potatoes.
The jumbo day sea scallops with lobster butter were fleshy morsels served with a wild-mushroom risotto and sautéed green beans. Other main choices include pork chops, chicken piccata, crab cakes, and a vegetarian dish with a grilled cauliflower steak on a bed of spinach.
End your meal on a sweet note with the chocolate brownie pancakes, a decadent assembly with hot fudge, peanut butter “syrup,” and candied walnuts.
The Mt. Washington Tavern has always been a comforting place. Today, it’s even more so with its appealing makeover and updated food choices. “We wanted to blend the old with the new,” Frisch says. But, in the long run, he knows the real secret to success: “People make the place.”