Banksy is a leitmotif at The Art Gastropub in Hagerstown, a shiny new establishment whose name is a fairly frank testament to its commitment, in the words of co-owner Anissa Harshman, to “nontraditional art.” He’s just one of the artists featured on the graffitied walls of the restaurant, so freshly opened that — at the time I called — its regular hours hadn’t even been set yet.
Still, I suspect the vividly decorated dining spot won’t have trouble drawing a crowd.
I’m a sucker for Hagerstown revitalization projects, and The Art is a heartwarming one, featuring Harshman and her partner, Ian, moving from Palm Beach, Florida, back to his home region to open a restaurant that would benefit the community. When everything is finalized, The Art will have an adjoining gallery for local artists and an extensive cocktail menu with homemade infusions. The draft beer menu already features plenty of Maryland staples. And when I visited the restaurant last week with a couple of friends, the front tables were already filled by a large and diversely aged group of nine (foreshadowing alert: they will come up later).
So, I wanted to like the restaurant, one of several recently opened spaces adding some diversity to the Hagerstown dining scene. And my friends and I started the meal strong with the tuna stacks, a dazzler of an appetizer with neatly sliced squares of seared ahi served alongside soft, tearable pita wedges.
“Seriously, if you quote me, you can say my mind is f— blown,” said one of my friends, ripping into the bread voraciously.
The pita was excellent, soft and buttery and sprinkled with sea salt that lingered deliciously on the tongue. I was just as impressed by the beautifully seared tuna with a rich, red center, drizzled with a cooling tzatziki-like sauce. A side salad of of red onions, diced tomatoes, cucumber, and avocado didn’t add much in terms of flavor, but the veggies did provide a nice crunch.
After that first appetizer, though (one of two, plus a flatbread and three mains), we waited. And waited. And waited, for about an hour. And here’s the thing — I knew that was going to happen. I walked into that newly opened restaurant and saw a large group at a front and knew I was strapping in for a long meal. I knew because everyone kept telling us that the gastropub was still in the “soft opening” phases, the precursor to its grand debut on May 3. The wait didn’t factor into my final review because a.) our servers were very professional and all the apps were comped to make up for it; and b.) I understand that there is a learning curve for new restaurants.
With a group of nine, you’re talking about at least a dozen orders, assuming that at least a handful of them order appetizers or dessert (and they probably will). That’s a lot of moving parts for a green kitchen to handle. But I will say that “soft openings” are an industry term that means virtually nothing to the general public. If a restaurant is open, it’s open, and a lot of customers are going to expect the same level of service they would anywhere else.
Luckily, in all regards, the service at The Art is pleasantly courteous. Our server did a nice job of accommodating one friend’s request for a burger on lettuce without the bun (it was Passover at the time), and everyone was downright solicitous when it came to correcting the wait. Some of the dishes could use a little finessing, but I hope that will come with time. What I liked very much: a “top shelf cheesesteak” served on lightly grilled sourdough, so named for the filet mignon sandwiched between the slices. The steak was tender and perfectly cooked, accented by melted mozzarella and caramelized onions.
We all stuck with sandwiches because none of the mains were available on the night we visited (again attributable to the “soft opening,” I suppose). Even bun-free, I also liked my friend’s “Fat American,” a hefty beef patty served with crunchy fried onion strings and a maple-bourbon barbecue sauce. The Beyond Burger was also pretty good, though I wish the potato roll had been given a stronger toast on the grill (the sandwich seemed to be missing a promised smear of mayo, but I suspect the condiment had soaked into the bread). My friend ordered it with a side of perfectly serviceable mac and cheese — soft penne in a creamy Gouda béchamel sauce.
What I didn’t like: a lackluster “mushroom and truffle” flatbread that was all grease and no flavor, without a trace of the oil’s signature pungency or the spinach promised on the menu. Nor did I care for the poutine, a mess of soggy “rosemary” fries (supposedly) that left an orange film of oil at the bottom of the bowl. The topping, a shell of unevenly melted Gouda, coated only the uppermost layer of fries (though there was a fairly generous dispersal of smoky diced bacon). One of my friends called it good drunk food, but you’d have to be pretty drunk.
Still, there’s enough at The Art to make it worth a visit, not even factoring in the gallery concept. What I liked most was Harshman’s decision not to screen sports at the bar. The night we visited, “Arrival” with Amy Adams was playing on the big screen. That alone would draw me back.
Follow Kate Masters on Twitter @kamamasters