Pictured in a tall glass with ice cream poking above the rim and foam overflowing, the Irish Float looked obscenely tantalizing. It stood out from the mosaic of golden fries and fluffed up burgers in the menu of the new Greene Turtle at McHenry Row.
A combination of Guinness and Bacardi rum, it suggested one of the alcoholic shakes at Abbey Burger Bistro. Those aren't cocktails. They are unapologetic guilty pleasures, both potent and decadent. But what I got at the Greene Turtle last week turned out to be little more than an alcoholic Shamrock Shake.
It was an off-kilter mix of chocolate syrup, spirits and beer, with Guinness overpowering the rum. No thought seems to have been given as to why these two things should go together - it's almost as if someone thought, "It's St. Patrick's! Dump some Guinness in there!" I felt guilty alright - for paying $6.50 for it.
To make things worse, the scoop of ice cream was so frozen I more or less had to bob for it to grab a chunk. It just sadly floated near the rim, soaking up foam, changing the flavor and texture of the drink as it melted.
The Irish Float is one of the ways the Greene Turtle, the rapidly expanding, Maryland-based sports bar chain, attempts to distinguish itself from competitors. Like Looney's, Magerk's and the Tilted Kilt, the food menu is not its strong suit — this is all your standard bar grub, including burgers, sandwiches and chunky chicken quesadillas. The decor is basic corporate chic.
So the Greene Turtle, whose McHenry bar is the company's 31st, serves up special mixed drinks and a wide selection of beer to try to make itself stand out. But those features don't make the bar stand out so much as blend in. It succeeds only at being efficient, suffering from a serious imagination deficit.
Beer-based cocktails or mixed drinks are not necessarily a dumb idea. Heavy Seas Alehouse went as far as to snag mixologist Brendan Dorr to consult on their terrific cocktails, which make use of the restaurant's namesake beer and actually highlight its flavors.
But the Greene Turtle doesn't have to look as far as that. Abbey Burger Bistro offers shakes that are strong and satisfying, with surprising flavor combinations instead of just sticking the two nearest spirits available.The Irish Float seems to have been designed at headquarters without consideration for soul or the customer's taste buds.
The Greene Turtle is a great Maryland success story. While the hospitality industry has stagnated during the recession, mid-sized bar/restaurant concepts like it have succeeded in large part thanks to their size — they're not too big, they're not too small. And its owners have pursued a sound strategy when it comes to expanding, slowly growing outward from the mid-Atlantic region.
But, it would be in their interest to be more creative in their trademark offerings. Even if it means sticking with the same look in every store — hey, consistency is one thing that made McDonald's successful — its seasonal drinks, burgers and other special offerings (like that Irish Float) could be bolder.
Otherwise, it risks looking like a bar that has focus-grouped its personality, which might be expected at a much bigger company, but not one this young.
The Greene Turtle does a number of things adequately. It's a nicely packaged box, immaculately scrubbed, with a clean layout and bright lighting. Fans of the concept will be satisfied with how much the McHenry location resembles other Greene Turtles. It won't surprise them to learn that branded merchandise is available upon entering. There's also no shortage of flat-screen TVs.
The dining room, near the front, is an ample spread with lots of group tables. The bar is equally spacious, with several single and group high-top tables and a long L-shaped bar.
Like at other Greene Turtles, this one hundreds of branded mugs hanging above the bar waiting to be claimed by members of its well-known mug club.
Its size is one asset the McHenry Row location can boast about - 7,000 square feet and with a capacity of 270 indoors, according to a manager. This makes it ideal for large groups, like the kickball team that came in after practice when I was there.
For a bar with modest ambitions, the beer selection is above average — 20 taps, half of them craft, including Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA, Heavy Seas' Loose Cannon and Goose Island IPA. The waitstaff, for the most part, acted satisfactorily during my visit. And the prices are affordable — my quesadilla was $8.49, beers top out at $6, and the float, like all the other mixed drinks on the menu, was $6.50. Between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., pints are $2.75.
In short, the bar meets the average standard it sets for itself. But there are nearby bars that surpass average. And I'm not talking about the nearby wine bar Silo.5, but Little Havana, which appeals to just as sporty a crowd without sacrificing character or flavorful drinks.
As I was working through my float, Kesha came on. Nothing could have been more appropriate: mediocre music for a mediocre drink.
Back-story: The Greene Turtle started in Ocean City in 1976 and expanded at a glacial pace — five other locations by 2001. But after Columbia-based JPB Partners bought a majority stake in 2007, expansion has gone into overdrive. McHenry Row is its 31st location, and one of the largest in the equally rapidly growing Locust Point area.
Parking: Lots of metered parking available on the street.
Signature drink: The Irish Float, $6.50, a mix of Guinness beer, Bacardi rum, vanilla ice cream, and chocolate syrup. Beers are between $3.75 and $6; pints are $2.75 during happy hour, 3 p.m.-7 p.m.
Where: 1606 Whetstone Way, Baltimore
Contact: 410-528-8606, thegreeneturtle.com
Open: 11 a.m.-midnight Sundays-Wednesdays, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Thursdays-Saturdays