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Dec 6, 2007 05:16 PM

Junior's Wine Bar

After walking by the place and seeing the trials they've gone through to get it open in the spot vacated by Vespa, I was very interested to see what was going on with this restaurant. Having read that they were going to open this week, I walked the two blocks to it with the intention of having dinner at the bar.

The short review: if you were a fan of Vespa (and I was), then you'll find much to like about Junior's. The menu is very similar, but the space has changed dramatically.

For one thing, it's MUCH larger. There was a bakery taking up the space where Junior's is now, so instead of dead ending a few feet into the restaurant, the space stretches back to occupy over twice the room that Vespa had. Tile floors have replaced the concrete, and there's a small sitting area with a couch and chairs where the old kitchen was. The whole place looks great.

I sat at the bar and ordered a glass of cabernet. I am not a huge wine nut -- give me a decent cab and I'm happy. It was quite good, and only $6 a glass, As a first course I ordered a salad of Bibb lettuce with feta. It was also good, but not fantastic. Plenty of cheese and a decent vinagrettte.

Since I'd had a salad, I skipped the larger entrees and stuck to the pizza. I had a duck pizza that looked to be roughly 10". After polishing off my salad, I waited for my pizza. And waited. And waited. It took forever -- over a half hour. In fairness to the staff, I was sitting at the bar and saw the bartender enter my order, so it was obviously a computer problem and not service trouble. The owner came by and chatted with me briefly and apologized for the delay, and comped my third glass of wine. He also said that I was probably the first customer that they had that was not friends or family, so I'm more than willing to forgive the glitch.

That said, when the pizza finally arrived, it was delicious. Perfect crispy crust and plenty of toppings. Easily the best pizza in Federal Hill (sorry, Dog Bar, I still love you).

Vespa filled a real need -- a perfect first date/everyday neighborhood spot. Classy and good food, but priced reasonably enough to not be intimidating. Junior's, who hired the same chef according to the owner, fills the same niche. There's not an entree on the menu that hits the $20 mark, and the wines are all very reasonably priced, with plenty of by-the-glass offerings in the $6-8 range.

Junior's is a brand new restaurant, and obviously has some issues to work through with the ordering system. If you're looking for Baltimore's best dining experience, it's not in the running. But for quality/value, it's way near the top. If you liked Vespa, I recommend it without reservation. I'll have to do some more experimenting with the menu, but based on my meal tonight, Junior's is a much needed addition to the city and Federal Hill.

I'll be back. Repeatedly.

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    1. Thanks for the report Jon. I just moved out of Federal Hill to north Baltimore. I'll rely heavily on you to keep me informed about the old neighborhood.

      By the way, the bakery you speak of is Muhley's. They used to also have a diner of sorts where Mother's is. There is still a Muhley's Stand in the Lexington Market, but that's the last remnants in Baltimore as far as I'm aware.

      3 Replies
      1. re: KAZ

        Thanks for the history lesson. I learned about the bakery by listening while sitting at the bar.

        Which reminds me, during my long wait for the pizza, they brought me a basket of very good bread with some olive oil for dipping. Delicious. I think it comes with the entrees, but they gave it to me so I'd have something to snack on while I waited. I'm a complete sucker for olive oil and bread.

        I'm really pleased with this place in spite of the snafu. I'm not going to be a harsh judge of something like that on their first night open. They handled it well -- I think every employee there apologized to me. Considering going back tonight and trying the lobster ravioli.

        1. re: JonParker

          Thanks for the update Jon (how many times do I wish that I still worked in Federal Hill?!) I just wanted to comment on the restaurant's response to the issue you described. Mistakes happen - especially when some place is new - but it sounds like everyone apologized (and you even got a free glass of wine!) It's when the restaurant staff treats you like the mistake's YOUR fault that I fault them and don't go back!
          Looking forward to your next review.

        2. re: KAZ

          We went last night. The vibe was nice, the decor too. They definitely needed one more server in the dining room. The spring roll was good, the salad nicoise with tuna fritters wasn't a salad nicoise and the fritters weren't good at any rate, and the squash soup was okay. (Though my teenage cousin thought it looked unappetizing, he liked the taste.)

          We liked the tomato/red pepper sauce pizza but not the roasted vegetable one. The chocolate creme brulee was fantastic.

          They are pushing the "wine bar" thing hard, that much we could tell. Two different servers asked, after my husband ordered a glass of wine and my two cousins and I said water is fine, if the rest of us wanted wine. My cousins are 17 and 20 and the query was clearly directed at them too.

          I'm thrilled at any place in my neighborhood that isn't too poseur or isn't a sports bar, so we're glad to have Junior's -- though for pizza alone, we prefer Dog Pub.

        3. My husband, myself, and three friends had dinner at Junior's last night and had a mixed experience. Prior to going to dinner, we tried to call to make reservations, but could not find any number on the internet--no website, no listing. The decor is admittedly very nice, and we were all suprised that it was quite large. We were seated in the back room on the right, which was a cozy space with a large flat screen that was off (at least put on a video of a fireplace?). Our server was at our table quickly. However, we were informed that they were out of both cabernets on the menu. What they were out of didn't end here--after ordering, we learned they were out of the pork shank and, surprisingly, coffee. Our server was terribly apologetic, though, explaining that they're a new restaurant and still trying to work out the kinks.

          The cheese plate special was quite good with its different types of cheeses, crispy breads, and chickpea tapenade center. The fried olives were interestingly delicious. Our entrees took a while to be served, but it was a Friday night, so we cut them some slack. My husband and his friend each had the lobster ravioli. My husband thought his tasted a little fishy and somewhat more like crabmeat than lobster, while his friend was satisfied with his dinner. I tried the arugula salad. On the menu, it stated that it was to have a gorgonzola dressing. However, it was a vinegarette dressing. When I asked the server, she stated that the gorgonzola was very fine and was mixed in. (I thought that was odd and the menu misleading.) Our other dinner companion had the salmon, which he thought had a mediocre taste and had quite a few bones. For dessert, we had the chocolate creme brulee which was served in espresso cups (ironically, they didn't have espresso either). It was smooth and delicious, but the crust was too hard.

          Overall, the food was okay--nothing to write home about, the service was quite good, and the space was upscale and hip. Perhaps once the kinks are worked out, it would be a great place for dinner and a "much needed addition" to the neighborhood.

          2 Replies
          1. re: unruly180

            "large flat screen that was off (at least put on a video of a fireplace?)"

            Are you serious? It drives me crazy that nearly every Federal Hill bar and even restaurant have televisions on. Please, Junior's, keep it off.

            1. re: sweetpotater

              i second that. been to vin in towson?

          2. My husband and I went to Junior's the other night and had a great experience. The inside is so much nicer than Vespa was. I got the aforementioned arugula salad with the roasted tomato/gorgonzola dressing, which yes was a vinaigrette, and was totally delicious. I followed with the duck/stilton pizza, which was also very good, but the pizza crust wasn't actually all that good, very thin but not crispy and pretty bland flavor, mostly the toppings were great. My husband started with the caesar salad, although it was called something else and that was ok, not great. And he got the pork, which was huge and he loved and came with carrot/sweet potato mash that he said was great. We also shared the chocolate creme brulee which was very nice, but the top was too thick/hard and it also came with a biscotti, which was a cute idea since the creme is in an espresso cup, and my husband says good, but was way too hard for me to eat on its own.

            I was a little surprised by the wine list, which is relatively short. There were plenty of $6-8 glasses, but overall it was a pretty expensive list. I think only 1 or 2 bottle less than $30 and most significantly more. I just don't understand making a list like that if you want everyone who comes in to drink wine. There are so many great wines that they can easily sell for $20 or less.

            The service was great. And overall it is a much needed addition to the Fed Hill dining choices.

            1. Does anyone know if Junior's is open for lunch on Saturdays? Or if they have website yet?

              3 Replies
              1. re: pigtowner

                the answering machine when you call during off hours just says, "you have reached junior's wine bar, leave a message." my friend & i visited juniors on wed. the atmosphere is hip, & the design much improves the spacial limitations of the old vespa. the wine list was a great selection with great range. we really enjoyed the fried olives. what's not to love, but what a great idea! tuna nicoise salad disappointed us as another hound pointed out above. my friend had the penne pasta & we both thought it was tasty. i had the pork dish. the meat was tender, the portion generous, but it really lacked flavor & seasoning. this place definately fills a much needed atmosphere & vibe in federal hill. i will return, sit at the bar, & munch on fried olives, for sure.

                1. re: kelarry

                  Been a few times and still waiting to be impressed. Anything that I've ordered with a temp has been overcooked...severely. I hate sending things back, I actually feel guilty, but this last visit I ordered the tuna med rare, came out well. Had it redone (the server was quite accommodating and friendly) and it came out, guess what, overcooked. Also, for a 'wine bar' the selection is pretty limited and the staff knowledge is even more limited. Seems like they are just trying to cash in on the whole wine bar craze by throwing that in the name. Had a nice conversation with Corky, the manager, definitely a nice guy and an asset to the place. He told me that they are planning on getting rid of most of the tables in the front and replacing them with hightops, not really what I would expect from a place that seems to be trying to attract a dinner crowd, but to each his own. Good luck Juniors, I'll keep trying.

                  1. re: LGood

                    I agree with the above that staff knowledge seems limited. Our server, though very genuine & attentive, was not familiar the wines we inquired about, & when we asked her opinion on menu items, she hadn't tasted those. Maybe with the high top tables, they are trying create an upscale lounge, with decent bar food. Although I believe they want to emphasize dining, they have more potential to make a spot for themselves by being a hip lounge first- appealing to the fed hill folk that want more than the college crowd...the food seems to be just a part of their scene, not the priority.