Driving past The Ale House Columbia on a warm Thursday evening, the first thing we noticed was the crowded patio; it looked fun.
The second thing we noticed was the valet.
Valet parking isn't an unusual sight outside a busy restaurant, but this was the first time we'd seen valet in a moderately crowded shopping center parking lot.
It's all about service, explained Greg Keating, managing partner of The Ale House. The restaurant wants to make their guests as comfortable as possible, right down to the parking experience.
With approachable food, excellent drinks and good service, The Ale House does just that.
Scene Once inside, we tucked into a comfortable booth near the center of the cavernous space, where high backs shielded us from raucous happy hour revelers in the bar (The Ale House is family friendly, but it is also popular with the after-work crowd).
A chatty waitress approached our table, introducing herself and another waiter; she was training and he was her handler.
Service The duo got off to a rocky start. It took them about five minutes to track down a cocktail menu and our first round of drinks arrived after our appetizer. But for the most part, the waitress and trainer tag-teamed our table efficiently, answering questions and refilling glasses promptly.
Drinks As its name suggests, The Ale House boasts an impressive list of beers, with the company's own Oliver Breweries' brands leading the way. We were happy to see 10-ounce pours as an option; the smaller size gave us an opportunity to take a risk or two.
We started with Winter Wolves ($4.25 for 10 ounces), a dark, hoppy brew, then moved on to the smooth Pagan Porter ($4.25 for 10 ounces), which tasted of coffee. Both were balanced and excellent sipping beers.
As robust as the beer list was, we were sorry that The Ale House didn't offer any beer-based cocktails. However, our disappointment was assuaged when we sipped our pineapple chile margarita ($8), made with house-infused chile tequila.
The drink was tart, spicy and well-balanced. Unlike some spicy drinks, it was easy to imbibe. The heat didn't keep the cocktail from being refreshing.
Appetizer Beer is not only for drinking at The Ale House; the brew also made several appearances on the food menu. Large soft pretzels ($8.99), liberally sprinkled with herb-flecked salt, came with a dish of warm Blonde Ale cheese fondue for dipping.
The beer was an intriguing addition to the dip — it added an enjoyable bitter edge. The pretzels were more like bread than actual pretzels and a few bites were too salty. But we enjoyed the flavor boost the herbs gave the salt.
Entrees The Ale House's dinner menu isn't adventurous, but our dishes were well-executed. A plate of jalapeno-cilantro mussels ($13.49), noted as one of two "Ale House favorites," was thoughtful, balanced, and cooked correctly.
The broth blended cider beer and basil butter with sauteed prosciutto, thin slices of jalapeno, fennel and a scattering of cilantro; each bite was salty, spicy and herbaceous. Grilled bread was crispy — ideal for sopping up broth — and the mussels themselves were plump and luscious.
A crisp glass of Oyster Bay sauvignon blanc ($9.50), from Ale House's impressively curated list of wines by the glass, was a proper match for the savory shellfish.
A flatbread topped with prosciutto and roasted peppers ($12.99) was equally easy to eat. The crust was crispy, with just enough char. On top, tangy goat cheese mingled with creamy mozzarella and olives added briny depth to the mix. Our only complaint: we had to be careful to get a bit of everything in each bite. The olives and peppers were especially vital to the sweet-salty balance.
A side order of Brussels sprouts tossed with bacon and caramelized onions ($5) were soft and tender. Though we prefer our sprouts with a darker roast, we loved the contrast of bitter sprout with sweet onion.
Dessert For dessert, bread pudding ($6), topped with a generous scoop of lightly whipped cream, was warm and chewy. A drizzle of "Blonde Ale caramel sauce" was a sweet addition, though we didn't catch any undertones of ale. (That may be just as well; the bread pudding was fine without an injection of beer.)
When we left around 9:00, happy hour was still going strong in the bar, though the patio crowd had packed up and gone home.
Bottom line The valet sat, waiting outside — a reminder that The Ale House staff wants you to sit back, relax and enjoy your evening from start to finish. Take them up on it.
Televisions: Numerous; visible from dining room and bar
Where: 6480 Dobbin Center Way, Columbia
The Ale House
Back story: Opened last December in Columbia, The Ale House is a new addition to the Oliver Breweries family (sister restaurants include Pratt Street Ale House in downtown Baltimore and Marleys Island Grille in Hilton Head). The Ale House specializes in beer-friendly meals, well-trained service and an atmosphere that feels like a never-ending happy hour.
Parking: Lot in front
Signature dish: The jalapeno-cilantro mussels at The Ale House are plump and juicy, with a fragrant broth that's neatly balanced between spicy, salty and fresh.
Contact: 443-546-3640; http://www.thealehousecolumbia.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Saturday; 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday (Kitchen closes at midnight; Brunch served on Saturday and Sunday)
Credit Cards: All major
Rating: 2.5 stars
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good:3 stars; Good:2 stars; Promising:1 star]