At Townhouse, fun atmosphere saves uneven food

The people at Townhouse want you to have a good time. They really do.

As we walked into the new Harbor East restaurant, which opened in May, the hostess greeted us with an emphatic, "Welcome to Townhouse! I hope you have a FABULOUS time!"

Our waitress shared the same enthusiasm throughout our meal — despite a few hiccups in service.

With approachable food, 40 beers on tap and party music blaring from the speakers, Townhouse is fun. But as the first East Coast outpost for Restaurants-America, an Illinois company that operates about a dozen restaurants around the country (including three other Townhouse locations), it also has a slightly corporate vibe.

Restaurants-America describes Townhouse as a "cozy urban lounge." While the cavernous Harbor East space doesn't feel particularly cozy, distressed wood and Restoration Hardware-style fixtures give it a cool industrial-chic vibe.

The space is big, with an enormous rectangular bar, numerous booths and tables and, along one side of the building, floor-to-ceiling curtains sectioning off a lounge area filled with low-slung sofas and TVs.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to experiment with one of Townhouse's big attractions — four 10-person booths with tableside taps. Each table comes equipped with four taps — one vodka, three beer — and a computer tablet that lets guests order by the ounce and pour their own drinks.

Without taps of our own, we stuck to the regular drinks menu, with mixed results. The Sage Coach's ($10) combination of cucumber, sage and Hendrick's gin was overly herbaceous, but refreshing.

We preferred the Vesper ($10) — Bombay Sapphire gin and elderflower liqueur, served with a lemon twist, carefully mixed and very cold. We also enjoyed a hoppy Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA ($6) from the extensive draft beer list (which included a respectable number of regional beers).

Like the drinks, appetizers were hit or miss. The deviled eggs ($5) were delightful — creamy with a just-right ratio of mustard to mayonnaise, dotted with an inspired drop of spicy sriracha. We plowed through the dish in record time.

Soft pretzel sticks, "crabby style," ($12) were less successful. Four pretzel logs, served with a side of crab dip, looked appealing but tasted bland. Lacking the crisp, salty crust of a good soft pretzel, they were more like boring breadsticks than pretzel sticks.

The crab dip arrived piping hot but, unfortunately, didn't have much else going for it. The dip lacked flavor — it needed several shakes of Old Bay — and was noticeably light on crab. This crab dip might fly in other parts of the country, but it wasn't Maryland quality.

Immediately on the heels of the pretzel disappointment, the service went into a mini-tailspin. Our entrees were delivered to the wrong table, and when they arrived, we discovered shrimp instead of the chicken we'd ordered in a pasta dish.

Both glitches were handled speedily and with grace — our waitress apologized and took responsibility. The staff, all new to the restaurant, was still working out some kinks, but they fixed the problems quickly.

As we tucked into our entrees, the meal got back on the right track. Our waitress had suggested the carnitas tacos ($10 for four). The recommendation was a good one. The pork was flavorful on its own, but even better in warm, small tortillas, topped with bright salsa verde, crumbled queso fresco and a creamy crown of avocado.

At first blush, the penne diablo ($16) didn't seem particularly special — just chicken and pasta in a red sauce. On the plate, though, the herb-seasoned chicken was elevated by spicy sauce, briny capers and tangy goat cheese. Together, the flavors made a surprisingly sophisticated combination.

Unfortunately, dinner's success didn't carry over to dessert. Cinnamon-and-sugar-encrusted bacon doughnuts arrived hot, straight from the fryer, around a scoop of vanilla ice cream. We loved the idea — chunks of bacon in sugary fried dough sounds fantastic. But without enough bacon to infuse the dessert with savory, salty flavor, the dish fell flat.

As we settled the bill, our waitress — in that same enthusiastic tone — implored us to "Come back! Come back for brunch to try the shrimp and grits, and come back for drinks!"

Considering the staff's level of positive energy, with another month or two under its belt, Townhouse's service hiccups will likely work themselves out. And it's that enthusiasm — along with a few real successes from the kitchen and bar — that makes Townhouse a genuinely good time.

Townhouse