The Mad River Bar & Grille at 1110 S. Charles St. was aptly named, as it drew a veritable river of party-mad 20-somethings to its door for Jager bombs and thumpa thumpa club beats. That river dried up last spring when, after 13 riotous years, the bar closed for a rebranding. The Charles debuted in the space in October with a focus on food and fine cocktails, not tipsy flirting. “The place was a bit rundown and we figured to get another 13 years, we needed a reinvention,” says Andrew Wheeler, one of the new restaurant’s managing partners, who also spent several years at Mad River. “And we wanted to be one of the driving forces moving the neighborhood away from its college-crowd reputation.”
The Name. “That was definitely an oversight on our part,” says Wheeler. Though a Baltimorean, he says he and his partners were “unaware” that for many in town, The Charles is the venerable Charles Theater in Station North.
The Space. The Aussie-themed bar Boomerang’s was the first to carve up the century-old bank building back in the 1990s. This latest retrofit keeps most of the structure — including the mezzanine level — but stripped many surfaces. “When you walk in and see the 20-foot ceiling you realize how amazing this building is,” Wheeler says. “We took the floors down to the original concrete, which we epoxy sealed, and chiseled the plaster walls down to the original brick — white-washed to brighten things up.”
The looming south wall is given over to towering shelving filled with so much bric-a-brac that the five TVs almost get lost. The bar has been moved to this side of the space from where it had been on the opposite wall under the mezzanine floor, now home to banquette seating. “We wanted to make the dining experience a little more intimate,” Wheeler says. “Before, people standing on the mezzanine upstairs were watching you eat.”
The Chef. Corey Pastor was most recently the executive chef at The Nickel Taphouse in Mt. Washington, but that was just one stop on a 14-year, learning-on-the-job culinary journey that he began as a teen working the grill at a pub in his native Carroll County. After discovering he had both a passion and an aptitude for the kitchen, he leapfrogged up the food chain, with notable positions along the way, such as line cook and sous chef for Cindy Wolf at Pazo and Charleston.
“I learned a lot from her,” Pastor says of his time with one of this city’s most lauded chefs. “She runs a very proper kitchen and if you work really hard and do a good job, she really helps you.” He also spent time down in Washington, cooking for that city’s restaurant heavy-hitter, Mike Isabella. “I like cooking with local products, but I don’t like the term “farm-to-table” because I think you get pigeonholed as doing Southern cooking, and I’m much more diverse,” Pastor adds.
The Food. The menu is made up largely of fusion small plates, or what Pastor calls “global bar food,” designed for sharing. Only two of the 20 plates crack the $20 mark and a third are below $10. Some are a play on Chinese-American classics, so you have General Tso chicken wings, Kung Pao quinoa and lobster rolls Rangoon.
The vegetarian offerings are innovative. What is parsnip steak bibimbap? Pastor begins with parsnips roasted low and slow in the oven, which are then cryo-vac marinated with soy sauce and corn syrup. “When you put them on the grill you get a nice char and a real meaty taste,” Pastor says. The Moroccan cauliflower, meanwhile, marries the spicy tang of North African spices, the crunch of pistachios and the salty richness of feta.
There’s also a half chicken with Parisienne gnocchi and a burger of Roseda Farms beef on a buttermilk kaiser. What won’t you see? “I’m biased against Brussels sprouts,” Pastor says, naming the once-decried veg that’s now a darling of so many menus. Indeed, his Buffalo Brussels sprouts were a big hit at the Taphouse. And that’s the problem. “I still love ’em,” he says, “but I’ve just cooked so many in my life.”
The Drinks. Six beers and two wines are on tap, along with a house sangria. Bar manager Harrison Livingston says the original cocktail offerings — created by Liz Jankiewicz, bar manager at Ouzo Bay — present a “sophisticated but approachable” spin on classics. The Tin Man (also on tap) is a brown-liquor version of a Moscow mule, with lemon, cranberry juice and ginger beer in the metal mug providing a tangy base for Tin Cup whiskey.
Verdict: With its handsomely reimagined space and creative small plate menu, this onetime college bar has graduated to better things. Yeah, that name. But maybe folks seeking dinner and a movie will now say they are going to the Charleses.
1110 S. Charles St.