Baltimore is the kind of city where it pays to take a chance on a crazy idea.
When Kurt Bragunier opened an Edgar Allan Poe-themed restaurant in a rowhouse in blue-collar Highlandtown five years ago, even the incurably optimistic would have scoffed at the idea.
But Bragunier, a self-described “serious fan of Edgar Allan Poe and lifelong restaurant person,” took the gambit.
That’s the story of Annabel Lee Tavern, 601 S. Clinton St. Today, the 700-square-foot, former “old man bar” is packed most nights of the week.
Bragunier, an artist with a bachelor of fine arts degree from University of Maryland, has been working in restaurants since he was 18. He was general manager at Brewer’s Art in Mount Vernon.
The Poe theme seemed natural fit for him.
“I’m a romantic,” he says.
From the dead roses and collection of Poe’s works on display, to the Poe quotes painted on the walls, Annabel Lee’s décor—gothic meets grandma’s furniture with a lot of burgundy—is entirely Poe-centric.
Bragunier created all the art. The quotes on the walls are from “Annabel Lee,” the restaurant’s namesake dark love poem that was published after Poe’s death.
Bragunier painted the Poe portrait over the mantel, too. Yes, the absinthe with the sugar cube on the mantel is real, and no, no one ever messes with it.
He also designed the outdoor ornamental metal work—the weather vane, raven, and twisted branch railing, all fabricated by metal worker Randy Slaysman, pay homage to Poe’s work.
But Annabel Lee is also as warm and cozy as a Poe-themed tavern could be.
The menu, which was devised by one of Bragunier’s first chef’s, is long and decidedly ambitious for a restaurant of its size.
It changes seasonally—next revision happens end of April—but customer favorites like duck fat fries with herbs de Provence ($7) are always on the menu, as are crab cakes, buffalo mushroom caps (sprinkled with buffalo chicken wing seasoning and deep-fried, served with a side of blue cheese dressing and crudités), and barbecued chicken and applewood-smoked bacon nachos.
Bragunier is the first to say that while he and chef Howard Meyers source carefully, his is not a farm-to-table restaurant.
“We’re not like Woodberry [Kitchen],” he says. “We’re about upscale comfort food, but one of our strengths is that we keep our prices low,” he says.
Still, Annabel sets the bar pretty high.
Annabel Lee’s signature Edgar Allen Paté, a dessert paté with three chocolates, Madeira raspberry sauce, and whipped cream, is made by a chef at Brewer’s Art.
Because of the volume of business, Bragunier recently obtained a seven-day liquor license and is now open on Sunday.
“It was either that or expand to the second floor,” he says.
“I decided to expand out, so to speak. Maybe we’ll expand to upstairs within the next few years or so.”
Bragunier is happy to be in Highlandtown.
“I love the neighborhood. It’s a little off the beaten track, but at the same time, I feel like it’s on the cusp of a renaissance, and I’m happy to be part of that.”
by Danielle Sweeney