Roughly equidistant from D.C. and Baltimore, Columbia, Maryland is pure suburbia: a collection of strip malls and housing developments originally conceived of as a self-contained community. As such, it is a major hub for family-friendly chain restaurants. Bertucci’s and the Cheesecake Factory are among the most popular destinations in town. But several independently owned originals await foodies who are willing to venture out of the cities in search of a good meal. One of these is the lively and elegant Victoria Gastropub. Think of it as a stylish American take on the traditional English publick house – only with a wider selection of beer, wine and cocktails and of course, with much better food.
The place lacks curb appeal. Passersby (most likely looking out from their car windows, since foot traffic is scarce) might reasonably mistake the pub for a Bennigan’s, which in fact is exactly what it used to be, before local real estate developer Randy Marriner bought the property seven years ago. But the cookie-cutter exterior hides a warm dining room furnished with red brick and brown wood paneling. An old clock and several wooden cabinets above the main bar contribute to a look that is vintage, but never cutesy. The atmosphere is, above all else, approachable and on most evenings, the space is filled with laughter and chatter that manages to feel unobtrusive.
Any conversation about Victoria Gastropub must begin with its extensive list of drinks. The bar boasts roughly twenty-five draughts on tap at all times, many of them local. Options change frequently, but on any given visit, the latest varieties from Baltimore breweries like Brewer’s Art and Heavy Seas may be on display next to craft beers from more far-flung places. Waiters tend to be experts on the encyclopedic menu of bottles and draughts, and are happy to offer recommendations – and a fleet of generously-sized glasses is available for those who prefer not to commit to just one new brew.
The kitchen, led by executive chef Joe Krywucki, whose daughter Victoria is the pub’s namesake, specializes in giving makeovers to traditional pub grub favorites. Krywucki’s version of Poutine ($9), so often considered strictly fast food in Quebec, is transformed into something luxurious: a nest of duck fat fries smothered over with flavorful Gruyere and occasionally dotted with hunks of duck breast meat. Justifiably, the poutine is the dish that has most visitors buzzing long after they leave. But the Duck Fat Fries ($7), served in a bucket and accompanied by a cup of roasted garlic aoli, are plenty satisfying in their own right. Disks of Crispy Eggplant ($7) drizzled with basil, and Buttermilk Fried Chicken “Pick-up Sticks” ($7), are substantial enough to whet the appetite without ruining it. On the healthier side, the greens used in many of the salads, such as the fresh and light Warm Frisee and Baby Spinach ($12), come directly from an herb garden located right behind the restaurant.
Elsewhere, the Lobster Grilled Cheese ($16), whose cheese is a brie fondue, is a gooey, decadent treat and the Victoria Fish and Chips ($15), colored an inviting golden-brown, are right on the money. But two superlative sandwiches just about make the menu: the Mushroom and Swiss Wagyu Burger ($15) which features a tender lump of beef coated with a blend of cheeses, and the sublime American Dip ($15), a grilled cheese composed of Angus beef and Vermont cheddar, accompanied by a Porter au jus for dipping. Both are formidable dinner choices, more than a cut above their counterparts at a pub of the “non-gastro” variety.
The colorfully layered Strawberry Passion Fruit Trifle ($8) is a pleasant, appropriately British end to the meal. Back in the parking lot, adjacent to both a McDonald’s and an Exxon station, it’s hard to forget where you are. But inside, it is easy to become fully immersed in English hospitality. The superior quality of the food at Victoria Gastropub might be the only reminder that you aren’t in London.