BALTIMORE -- The Wharf Rat dares you to like it. First, there's the name -- I mean, we're talking about a place that serves food. Then there's the curious policy of not having a server approach your table to take orders. And if you're older than 32, you might feel like an AARP candidate in the youth-is-served Fells Point section of the city.
What drew a friend and me to the Wharf Rat is its menu. Not the thing itself, a stained and wrinkled photocopy, but the array of seafood dishes that seems in keeping with the waterfront neighborhood. (There's another Wharf Rat near Oriole Park at Camden Yards.)
Thirteen items make up the ''From the Seafood Bar" side of the menu. Of those, only the Maine mussels did not appeal. I don't travel from Massachusetts to Maryland to eat something from Maine. That left an even dozen choices, including seafood gumbo, cheddar shrimp, and oysters on the half shell.
The menu's land side offers mostly familiar bar food and pizza, which is appropriate for a place that looks more like a bar than a restaurant. The ceilings hang low, with beer coasters and trays attached to the joists, and the regulations seem geared more for a bar than for a restaurant: Smoking is allowed (although, mercifully, it's unobtrusive), and two patrons were accompanied by dogs.
We were enjoying some local pale ales when our appetizer of beer-battered, deep-fried calamari arrived. The batter was thick, yet not heavy. Our crab cake dinner and fried oyster sandwich followed. The oysters were tender, and the sandwich improved by removing the lettuce and tomato, leaving just the toasted roll, the subtly sweet mollusks, the tartar sauce, and the medium-cut fries.
The crab cakes were made with lump crab meat, without the diced peppers that can muddle, if not ruin, them. Instead, the two cakes were served with a side of red and green peppers, onions, and mushrooms grilled to an al dente crunch, plus fries.
My friend's business is seafood inspection, and after questioning a waitress regarding the seafood's source, he delivered his verdict: ''Aside from the calamari, from what the waitress told us, we had an authentic Chesapeake Bay seafood dinner."
We had one more question: Why the mystery about how to place an order? ''We figure that everyone will figure it out eventually," reasoned a youngish, chrome-domed waiter. ''As long as people leave with a smile on their faces."
The Wharf Rat, 801 South Ann St., Baltimore. 410-276-9034. Daily, noon to midnight. Seafood $4-$16, bar fare $5-$7.50, pizzas from $9.