One of my nightlife maxims is that Disneylandish decor is the last resort of a hopeless bar. I've spent a fair amount of time working and drinking in English pubs, but never saw one that had one of those proverbial red phone boxes inside. That's why I winced when I saw one in the Wharf Rat at Camden Yards. Same goes for the Union Jack hanging in the bar, or the Bobby's helmet with a place of pride. Familiar -- if tiresome -- imagery alone won't suddenly transport me back to London and grand Victorian pubs like the Lamb or even corner boozers like my beloved Angel in the Fields. The bothersome thing is, the Wharf Rat doesn't need to stoop to such levels. The beer is enough to (almost) to make me close my eyes and think of England.
The Wharf Rat at Camden Yards, a younger sister to the Wharf Rat down the road in Fells Point, offers at least a dozen beers brewed in-house under the name "Oliver's," plus four cask ales and a selection of seasonal varieties. Only the Old Dominion Brewpub in Ashburn, Va. has a larger selection of locally brewed beers. The Wharf Rat also offers 27 imported and microbrewed bottles to choose from, as well as the "ordinary beers" on the menu -- Bud, Miller Lite, etc.
Fanatics, though, will be drawn to the four cask conditioned real ales. Real Ale is the traditional English beer, unfiltered, kept in barrels containing live yeast and dispensed without artificial carbonation. These ales are supposedly poured "warm" -- Oliver's cask ales are served at 54 degrees, while Budweiser recommends 40 degrees or colder for its beer. This temperature, however, brings out the flavor. We were impressed with three of the four ales on offer, especially the Oliver Export Pale Ale. It's similar to Sierra Nevada but with more hops and more kick -- it's 6 percent alcohol. The ESB (Extra Special Bitter) and Best Bitter are solid. Even though it's slightly disappointing on its own, the Dark Mild, sweet and brown, is good with food.
Real ales are hard to find in Washington -- only the Rock Bottoms, John Harvard's, District Chophouse and the Dominion Brewpub in Ashburn offer them on a regular basis -- so finding four of this quality in one place is enough to make a beer geek salivate.
If real ale isn't your thing, don't worry. Most of the other British and European-style draft beers don't disappoint. SW1 is an amber ale with a hint of citrus. Biere de Garde sports a dark and malty taste, touched with a sweet fruit flavor. Some are more familiar to American palates. The Irish Red, sharp and malty, will be a revelation to anyone who's tried Killian's Irish Red. Manchester Cream Ale's silky texture is as smooth as Boddington's, which is known as "the Cream of Manchester."
Arrive before 7 p.m. for the beer sampler - three five ounce samples of any of Oliver's beers. You can also have a quick taste of the beers on draft. Bartenders are used to customers wanting samples -- stacks of plastic shot glasses sit near the taps for people who can't make up their minds.
There's more here than beer, obviously, and the menu offers delicious pub food, ranging from golden fish and chips to meatloaf to roast beef sandwiches. Upstairs, there's a bookcase-lined game room, with a pool table, foosball, pinball, Golden Tee and other distractions.
-- Fritz Hahn