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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.

            2. does anyone know if there is a different menu for the bar and restaurant? if there are 2 different menus then i might try this place again, but if there is not then i do not think i will be heading back. pasta...............not so good.

              10 Replies
                1. re: kelarry

                  i guess that means i won't be heading back there. you really liked it? really? the vibe is ok, they just need to find decent food to match it.

                  1. re: wild bill

                    I'm curious as to the specifics of what you didn't like. What did you have? What was wrong with it?

                    I like it fine. It's not a destination place, but it's a nice neighborhood place with competent food, IMO. The only pasta I've had was the lobster ravioli, which was tasty. It wasn't in my top meals of the year, but it was good. I love the duck pizza.

                    1. re: JonParker

                      specifically i had the pappardelle with calamari meatballs. the portion was miniscule and the calimari meatballs ruined a great ingredient, and tasted fishy. the dish was so underseasoned that it was almost tasteless except for the fishy calamari meatballs. i tried the duck pizza, and it was alright, it didn't wow me.

                      1. re: wild bill

                        I will avoid that in the future then. I do wonder if they have some consistency issues, since I've heard other semi-negative reports, and I know my taste isn't that off.

                        I've also heard plenty of positives, so it's clear they do good food at least some of the time. Nothing I've had there has been amazing, but it's all been solid. I don't doubt your word at all, I'm just wondering why people have such varying experiences.

                        1. re: JonParker

                          i know what you mean. i think they still have kinks to work out. their seasonal menu has the dish i had on it, and it had fresh tomatoes in it. any amateur chef knows that you can't find great tomatoes this time of year. i think they need to retool the kitchen, but at least they show promise. the thing i would be worried about is that it has been open for a little while and these kinks are still occurring. this place was a major investment, and they could be s.o.l. if they don't get their act together quickly.

                          1. re: wild bill

                            I went last weekend and really enjoyed it. First and foremost, the host and server both rocked. I was with a large party so many dishes were ordered. The bibb lettuce salad was spot on. Also, both the pork shank and rib eye were beloved amongst the group. I really enjoyed the pizza and thought both the dough and portion size were perfect. One issue, though - and it's a holdover from Vespa - they ran out of bottles of wine. Boo! I think that is a major no, no considering it wasn't one bottle in particular. Nope. If they want to market themselves as a wine bar, it's necessary to keep the place stocked. I don't know who does their bar ordering, but this person needs to be fired. The owner has been in the business long enough to have this process down. Vespa was notorious for this issue and looks it like Junior's will be, too, unless something changes.

                        2. re: wild bill

                          Umm, I just have to point that we're talking calamari meatballs. Yes, they are a little fishy, but then so is calamari. I've had the meatballs and thought they were really interesting. Obviously not for everyone, but it's always refreshing to see something on the menu you've not seen before or haven't seen in a long time.

                          1. re: BmoreHound

                            Wasn't a fan of the calamari meatballs but the fried olives alone are worth the trip!
                            Would also like to commend staff on working around my dietary restrictions. I ate there 2 weeks after reconstructive jaw surgery and they took care to cook everything a little beyond al dente per my request.

                            1. re: BmoreHound

                              nice, fresh calamari is not fishy. week old, second or third use calamari will probably be fishy.

                  2. Why would anyone in their mind be happy w/ $6-$8 glasses of plonk I have no idea. Thats the problem w/ this place. too many cheap wines.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: baltimoeronvino

                      Huh? ...Then buy an expensive bottle!

                      1. re: baltimoeronvino

                        Agree 100%. I don't go to a wine bar to drink glasses of cheap wine. A few aren't bad, but please give me something good also. Oh, and NONE of the servers have a clue about the wine. Shouldn't that be a condition for working in a wine bar? At least know the list.

                      2. The co-owner/chef is the same as Vespa's.

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: Naut

                          Has anyone been recently? Their website is not up and running with anything other than an email address...

                          Any happy hour specials or memorable bites?

                          1. re: hotel

                            I was just there last night. I think the prices have gone up a bit? It was still delicious and well worth - however, our service was a little off.

                            1. re: hotel

                              Been there a few times...they have weekly specials like Ladies Night and Half Price Wines. Not sure of the days, we just happen to be there on those nights. Noticed they added new dishes to their menu too.

                              1. re: MMMiller

                                I think the menu changes seasonally. The last time I went to eat the duck pizza was off the menu for the summer. Tried a mushroom pizza ( I think) which was ok but not as good as the duck.

                                I also wish they'd update the website. I've seen specials once in a while, but it took walking by the place and seeing the chalkboard outside.

                          2. Get the fried olives and capers appetizer, it's addictive!

                            1. I had some friends staying in DC swing through Baltimore on their way back home to NY so we could have brunch together. I was so excited to take them to Juniors. I knew the food would be great I just love the atmosphere. When we got there, we were the ONLY table. This didn't matter to us, I only make a note of it because our waitress had the attitude like she was mad at us for coming in and making her actually work. She was unfriendly, unhelpful, short and smug with us from minute one. She spent most of her time avoiding us by sitting at the bar chatting with the bartender or standing at the line looking at us until one of us made eye contact then she'd look away (hoping we didn't want anything I guess).Our food took a little while but it was FANTASTIC. In the meantime she didn't ask us if we wanted refills on anything, never checked in to see how the food was, etc. It's your only table! Anyway the food totally saved the experience. It's sad that our waitress hated working so much and wasn't afraid to let her customers know it. Then the bill came and we saw why...automatic gratuity on parties of 6 or more. She helped herself to 20% of the bill and I guess that's why she felt like she didn't need to do her job or represent the hard work being done in the kitchen or by the owners.
                              I don't think many people know about Juniors brunch, and the food is worth it, I hope the service catches up or I'd hesitate to go back with guests from out of town.