Harford County’s best restaurants of 2021

In this year’s readers’ poll, locals share their insight on the places, dishes, drinks and people that make the county a place to dine. The winners include old favorites and new faces — and offer lots of inspiration for your next night out.

Ambience: One Eleven Main

Asian: Chopstix Forest Hill

Lemon N Ginger Asian Grille

Bakery: Flavor Cupcakery & Bake Shop

Woodlea Bakery of Bel Air

Bar food: Sean Bolan’s Irish Pub

Barbecue: JD’s Smokehouse

Wargo’s Restaurant & Tavern

Bruno’s Land & Sea Restaurant

Bartender: Shelby Stange, Independent Brewing Co.

Lisa Moody, Double Groove Brewing Co.

Nicole Turner, Earth, Wood & Fire

Nick Franchetti, Sean Bolan’s Irish Pub

Beer list: Independent Brewing Co.

Double Groove Brewing Co.

Black-owned restaurant: Island Spice Grille & Lounge

Spice Isle Restaurant and Catering

Breakfast/brunch: Sunny Day Cafe

Executive Chef Jon Kohler, owner of Pairings Bistro, was voted best chef in the Best of Dining readers’ poll. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Chef: Jon Kohler, Pairings Bistro

For more than a decade, this Bel Air restaurant has invited guests to think outside the box when it comes to food and beverage, offering seasonal cuisine and thoughtful wine pairings to match for every item on the menu. Did you know that you can pair a pinot noir with fried mozzarella, or a nice rose with an ice cream sundae? Perhaps that’s why readers call chef and owner Jon Kohler Harford County’s favorite chef. While the strip mall location doesn’t scream elevated cuisine, the restaurant’s comfortable atmosphere, consistent fare and attentive service make this a worthy destination. Kohler says the next frontier for the eatery will be beer and cocktail pairings. “We just want to pair beverages and food together,” he said. “It’s about layers of flavor and textures and all of that.”

Lauren Bierman, Earth, Wood & Fire

James Bratton, Uncle’s Hawaiian Grindz

Omar Hernandez, Liberatore’s Ristorante & Catering

Liberatore’s Ristorante & Catering

Crab cake: Box Hill Pizzeria

Deli: Vagabond Sandwich Company

Savona – Fine Italian Foods and Wine

Bruno’s Land and Sea Restaurant

Delivery: Pat’s Pizzeria

Dessert: Broom’s Bloom Dairy

Flavor Cupcakery & Bake Shop

The exterior at One Eleven Main in Bel Air.

The exterior at One Eleven Main in Bel Air. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Fine dining: One Eleven Main

The Bel Air eatery opened in the fall of 2015 in a historic Main Street building that has lived many lives in its more than 150 years: coffee shop, florist, deli, and a prohibition style bar. But its current incarnation may be Harford County residents’ favorite yet. “Were a very small intimate dining room” said manager Kristen Oktavec. “The space is warm, cozy, quiet.”

Linen table cloths and candles adorn small tables. Readers named One Eleven Main best for ambience, fine dining, overall and for steak.

Under the helm of executive chef Bryan Boessel the restaurant serves up a menu of well-executed staples like seared sea scallops and filet mignon complemented by a diverse wine selection and cocktail menu.

Frozen treats: Broom’s Bloom Dairy

Jarrettsville Creamery and Deli

Bomboy’s Homemade Ice Cream

Happy hour: Looney’s Pub

Uncle’s Hawaiian Grindz

Liberatore’s Ristorante & Catering (tie)

Healthful menu: Poke Bowl

The interior, at Bacco Italian + Wine Bar.

The interior, at Bacco Italian + Wine Bar. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Italian: Bacco Italian + Wine Bar

Enotria Restaurant & Grill

Liberatore’s Ristorante & Catering

Late-night dining: Sean Bolan’s Irish Pub

Uncle’s Hawaiian Grindz

Live entertainment: Looney’s Pub

Double Groove Brewing Co.

Lunch menu: Sunny Day Cafe

Margherita Pizza Of Bel Air

Mucho Gusto bartender Aron Pribyl makes a cocktail. The restaurant is voted Best new restaurants and favorite cocktail for Harford Magazine.

Mucho Gusto bartender Aron Pribyl makes a cocktail. The restaurant is voted Best new restaurants and favorite cocktail for Harford Magazine. (Kenneth K. Lam)

New restaurant: Mucho Gusto

Investors initially dismissed Nelson Ruiz when he approached them with his idea for a restaurant in Bel Air. Customers in the area, better known for chains than innovative cuisine, wouldn’t be interested in a new concept bringing artisanal margaritas and an upscale atmosphere to Harford County, they said.

But Ruiz felt differently. After many years living in the area, the New York City transplant said he was convinced Bel Air residents would be drawn to something different if given the chance. This year, Harford Magazine readers voted his restaurant, Mucho Gusto, which opened in July 2020, best new restaurant — with the best cocktails.

Head mixologist Oskr Hernandez mixes up the cocktail menu every few months. Drinks are made with fresh-squeezed juices and housemade purees. “It’s fresh as can be and people can taste it,” Ruiz said. Many call it “the best margarita they’ve ever had.” Mucho Gusto also offers an assortment of mezcal and bourbon with shots ranging in price from $8 to $300.

And those naysayer investors? Ruiz said they are now bankrolling new branches of Mucho Gusto set to open in coming years.

The outdoor dining area of Hickory Lodge was voted Best in outdoor dining for Harford Magazine.

The outdoor dining area of Hickory Lodge was voted Best in outdoor dining for Harford Magazine. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Outdoor dining: The Hickory Lodge

There’s not a ski resort within 60 miles, but you wouldn’t know it from the ambience of this rustic restaurant. Here, among weathered timbers and cozy fires, one can dine on alpine fries, avalanche burgers and Matterhorn salads, while perched in ski lift chairs that hang from above.

Eat inside or out. There’s a patio and covered pavilion with 30 tables, a gas fireplace, strings of lights and bedecked with plants and seasonal decor (pumpkins and colorful leaves in fall). On weekends, there’s music out yonder — a disc jockey and/or three-piece bands playing everything from country tunes to classic rock.

“It’s a nice atmosphere to hang out in,” says David Steele who, with his wife, Jean Miller, opened the place in 2009. They’d bought the building, a rundown bar, three years earlier with plans for a quick renovation. But while knocking down walls, they uncovered remnants of a 19th century log cabin, with rough-hewn timbers that they couldn’t tear down.

“So we rebuilt the place to mimic what we’d found,” said Steele. The three-year project assumed a ski theme. Never mind that there’s a supermarket next door; just dig into the bacon-wrapped meatloaf or the 14-ounce pork chop and pretend you’re in Vail.

Uncle’s Hawaiian Grindz

Double Groove Brewing Co.

Liberatore’s Ristorante & Catering

Renato Buontempo, left, and Richard Lynch, right, are owners of Buontempo Brothers Restaurant, which has been named Harford County's best pizza.

Renato Buontempo, left, and Richard Lynch, right, are owners of Buontempo Brothers Restaurant, which has been named Harford County’s best pizza. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Pizza: Buontempo Brothers Pizza

“We are an icon,” says Renato Buontempo, co-owner of the 32-year-old Italian restaurant on Bel Air’s Main Street. And while it serves up a full card of entrees, from chicken cacciatore to shrimp parmigiana, it’s the pizza that draws folks in — nearly 20 kinds in all. Choose from buffalo chicken, seafood, veggie or eggplant parm; a 10-topping deluxe or a gluten-free pizza with a cauliflower crust. Or go with the basic cheese pie that put this place on the map.

Each year Buontempo, 52, returns to his native Italy in search of new recipes. But nothing goes on the menu until it passes muster with his wife and four children.

“I ask them, ‘Is this gold?’ I get their input,” he says. “If a product is not good enough for my family, I won’t serve it to customers. I taste our pizzas every day, just in case something’s missing.”

“We use the best olive oil, flour and mozzarella cheese you can get in America,” Buontempo says. “The crust [recipe] hasn’t changed from the start.”

“My heart goes into every pizza.”

Margherita Pizza Of Bel Air

Place to take out-of-towners: Independent Brewing Co.

Double Groove Brewing Co.

Place to take the kids: Buontempo Brothers Pizza

Uncle’s Hawaiian Grindz

Seafood: Conrad’s Crabs and Seafood Market

Server: Travis Moore, Sunny Day Cafe

Gerald Grant, Earth, Wood, & Fire

Michael Reisinger, Double Groove Brewing Co.

Anastasia Zivkovic, Uncle’s Hawaiian Grindz

Double Groove Brewing Co.

Looney's Pub on S. Main Street in Bel Air has been named Harford County's best sports bar and happy hour. Bartender Leigh Engelke mixes cocktails at the bar.

Looney’s Pub on S. Main Street in Bel Air has been named Harford County’s best sports bar and happy hour. Bartender Leigh Engelke mixes cocktails at the bar. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Sports bar: Looney’s Pub

Of the 130 televisions humming here, all are tuned to sports. None air the news.

“We don’t show politics or religion,” co-owner Bill Larney says. Nothing that might cause a rhubarb. Except sports.

“Ravens-Steelers and Orioles-Yankees is as [contentious] as we get,” he says.

The marriage works. At Looney’s, you get muscles with your mussels or any other dish — a dandy combo for patrons who pack the place on weekends.

Open since 2002, it’s the second oldest of five Looney’s establishments in the Baltimore-Washington area. Happy Hour (2 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily) offers discount drinks, $8 appetizers and a congenial atmosphere which, the owner says, give his place the edge.

“Our friendly staff offers over-the-top service, where everybody knows your name,” says Larney, 53. “Come in on a Monday or Friday afternoon and, basically, every one of the [90] bar stools is full.”

Weekends bring live bands inside the spacious dining area, playing country or classic rock, while acoustic guitars entertain those sipping and supping on the patio, which has 24 tables and its own small bar.

Music aside, the TVs rule. The games play on.

“On Sundays, we show every NFL game,” Larney says, “and no matter where you’re sitting, you can see them all.”

The Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grille

Liberatore’s Ristorante & Catering

Steamed crab: Richard’s Fish & Crabs

Crab Truck and Seafood Stop

Conrad’s Crabs and Seafood Market

Takeout: Box Hill Pizzeria

Vegetarian options: Coffee Coffee

Uncle’s Hawaiian Grindz

Bartender Alayna Bodt carries beers to customers relaxing outdoors at Hopkins Farm Brewery, which opened in July. Oct. 7, 2020.

Bartender Alayna Bodt carries beers to customers relaxing outdoors at Hopkins Farm Brewery, which opened in July. Oct. 7, 2020. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

View: Hopkins Farm Brewery

Wine list: Pairings Bistro

Enotria Restaurant & Grill

Editor’s note: Winners and honorable mentions were determined by popular vote. Readers were invited to nominate and vote online in July and September.

Trisha Anderson

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