Best of Baltimore
Best New Bar, Best Bars by Neighborhood, Best Dive Bar, Best Beer selection, Best Wine Bar, and more.
Published: September 22, 2010
Best New Bar
2108 Eastern Ave., (443) 759-6464, johnnyrads.com
Sometime you walk into a bar and you can just tell immediately that you are in some other person’s dream bar, a guest in their vision. Like, a place sketched out on drink napkins over the years, with maybe even a few aborted attempts behind it, and all-in-all has that kind of palpable heart and soul such that you may as well be chilling in the owner’s den. That’s Johnny Rad’s. There are the well-scuffed skateboards adorning absolutely everything, the nice touches such as skate wheels on the bathroom doors, and the well-manicured beer selection based on what people might actually like to drink—a whole lot of quality canned beers, like Porkslap and Dales—and not a beer snob’s idea of what they should like to drink. And pizza, very good pizza. And creative bar food you can afford, like a basket of hush puppies (“huf puppies,” here) that do just fine as a stand-alone snack. There are a lot of places that open in Baltimore based on some calculation of trendiness—food-y, beer-y, sports-y, Miami—and not many based on personality. Johnny Rad’s will do well.
Best Bar, Station North
1724 N. Charles St., (410) 727-8815
You know Club Chuck. Save for the Tavern, it’s the one bar in Baltimore cool enough for art hipsters to patronize. It’s got Future Islands and Beach House on the jukebox. The food, still flowing from the Zodiac kitchen next door, is damn fine—who knew a vegan crab cake could be edible, let alone good. In recent months, the Club Charles has even gotten Pikesville Rye back for sale and a handful of new, fancy-pants beers such as Dogfish. You’ll still never find Natty Boh here, but the all-out Halloween decorations and an occasional John Waters appearance might make up for it. This is a bar stand-by that will survive Armageddon.
Best Bar, Charles Village
Charles Village Pub
3107 Saint Paul St., (410) 243-1611
The Charles Village Pub gets grief for being a college bar, sometimes fairly, but more often it’s a mislabeled neighborhood bar. The bartenders remember you, as do the hard-drinking regulars; the burger is decent and cheap; and the beer selection isn’t half bad for a bar just around the way. You can also drink outside until close, which is plenty rare, maybe strike up a conversation with an astrophysicist, or get good and lit and play that video game where you shoot the big game animals. A good time.
Best Bar, Fells Point
Cat’s Eye Pub
1730 Thames St. (410) 276-9866, catseyepub.com
Over the last decade or so, Fells Point has seen many old, familiar drinking spaces replaced with new, strange ones, making us all the more fond of the old standbys. Among those—and there are still several—the Cat’s Eye Pub stands out. The place had a sad shift change when longtime owner Tony Cushing died in 2008, but Cushing’s wife and son, Ana Marie and Tony Jr., have stuck with the 30-year-old formula: opening every single day, offering lots of free live music, and welcoming all with a free-wheelin’, hard-drinkin’ attitude. Fortunately, the Cat’s Eye hasn’t caught the fast-spreading Fells Point disease of messing with a good thing.
Best Bar, Federal Hill
1132 S. Hanover St., (410) 547-7415
It’s interesting how becoming a bar destination/booze theme park—Federal Hill, Canton, Power Plant Live—can help suck actual quality drinking establishments out of a neighborhood. Well, Mums is holding its ground in Federal Hill like a champ, a dusty pocket of a bar off the main booze drag sporting cheap-enough Boh and hard-drinking South Baltimore regulars—plus its one of only a few places in the city to get Viryta, that Lithuanian honey liquor, typically sold in one of several numbered combinations of drinks (like a “#1,” or a Boh and a shot). You could feel at home here real easy.
Best Bar, Downtown
421 E. Baltimore St., (410) 727-5054, midwaybar.com
The only place to grab a drink on the Block without having to gawk at naked flesh offers a different kind of original character. Like many beloved local dive bars, the Midway feels like it hasn’t changed in years, maybe decades, and that attitude perfectly suits the place. A long bar runs down one side of the room with restrooms in the back (you have to get buzzed in if you need to use it), and the clientele runs from men and women you assume work shifts down in this stretch of the 400 block of East Baltimore Street to people who feel right at home in a dive bar surrounded by strip clubs. The prices are more than reasonable—and downright cheap compared to traditional Block establishments—and the ambiance 100 percent genuine and irony free. Cheers.
Best Bar, Canton
2900 O’Donnell St., (410) 675-9235, looneyspub.com
We hate to sound like a broken record, but let’s face it—Looney’s pretty much embodies the experience that is going out in Canton. There’s ample outdoor seating for people watching, or for holla-ing, if that’s your thing. The front bar has that narrow, cozy feel of a neighborhood spot, while the upstairs is huge and littered with TVs and sundry bar games. There’s even a dining room, which we’ve only glimpsed while shuffling upstairs to the bar. Drinks are reasonably cheap, bartenders are competent (if a bit surly), and the wings are good. It’s one-stop shopping, the Walmart of getting ripped on the square, if you will.
Best Bar, Highlandtown
The Laughing Pint
3531 Gough St., (410) 342-6544, laughingpint.com
We envy anyone who lives near this gem of a bar. The atmosphere is mellow, the food is delicious, and the people who work here are so damn nice. Hipsters hang out here, but we’ve also seen postal workers coming off their shifts, old tattooed men, and ping-pong enthusiasts. (The balls often end up ricocheting around the small bar, which keeps things lively in the absence of a television.) There’s a heated patio—in season—for smokers, and beverages range from Natty Boh to microbrews to fresh grapefruit greyhounds. You can surf the web or play on the gorgeous wooden shuffleboard table for free.
Best Bar, Hamilton
5517 Harford Road, (410) 426-1930, hamiltontavern.com
Imagine the Brewer’s Art as an aboveground neighborhood bar. It’s about the perfect place ever, right? Great beer, great food, familiar faces, and the vibe reset from “destination” to “home.” That’s the Hamilton Tavern, a cozy as hell outpost on Harford Road a little too far from any main drinking drag or any of Baltimore’s gentrified arteries to garner much of the weekend party-party crowd. It’s run by one of the guys from the Brewer’s Art, so that quality is pretty much a guarantee. In short, it’s the bar you wish you had in your ‘hood.
Best Bar, Hampden
Rocket to Venus
3360 Chestnut Ave., (410) 235-7887, rockettovenus.com
Just a few years ago, picking the best bar in Hampden would be more process of elimination than anything else. Now, there’s everything from blue-collar haunts to hipster havens. Rocket to Venus gets the nod because it’s got everything we look for in a bar: good food, a thoughtful selection of beers on tap, a wine list that goes beyond the expected, and a kick-ass jukebox. It also boasts skilled and friendly bartenders, stylish but not trendy decor, and a scene that is lively without being too crowded or cool. If we can grab a seat outside on a nice night, so much the better.
Best Bar, Mount Washington
5736 Falls Road, (410) 433-8299, curbshoppe.com
Nobody is going to yell out your name when you walk through this door off Falls Road, and, if we can be frank, that’s the way we like it after getting our hair did, hitting Starbucks, dropping a double-digit percentile of our paycheck at Whole Foods, or taking our pet to the vet in Mount Washington—a neighborhood where we don’t mean to get all suburban but somehow still do. A coupla cheap beers, free snacks, and maybe one of the tasty burgers at cool, dark Curb Shoppe is an hour spent watching whatever sports are on and chilling to Journey sans irony. People are accommodating, but only the drunks chat you up, nothing is organic, and our world is back in balance.
Best Dive Bar
205 W. Read St., (410) 225-3100
Is it fair to call a dive bar cute? Is it the presence of the gays or the octo-whatever-gon shape or the actual diversity of clientele making the Drinkery so friendly? We’ll never figure out. What we do know is it’s got white Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling and the slight smell of urine near the ladies room grows on you. A snack machine in the corner only offers two rows of snacks, happy hour from 4-9 every day gives you two-for-one domestic bottles and/or two shots per rail drink, and the wood-and-Formica bar goes all the way around the tiny room, because what do you really want from a dive bar? A drink.
Best Beer selection
737 S. Broadway, (410) 675-6297, maxs.com
Really, would it be anywhere else? Looking at this Fells Point corner bar’s list of brews, we’d be hard-pressed to suggest that this isn’t every beer ever in the great wide universe. That’d be around 1,200 bottled beers in stock, 140 taps, and five cask ales (hand-pumped, that is). For taps, that’s purported to be the most on the East Coast, and we’re not really in a position to argue. While we sometimes wish Max’s wasn’t smack in Fells Point party central, where the hell else can we get a Norwegian Haandbryggeriet Dark Force on draft that’s not, um, Norway.
Best Wine Bar
507 S. Exeter St., (410) 528-8600, vinorosina.com
In a testament to trends popping up in Baltimore after they’ve hit and died everywhere else, a number of wine bars have opened up in town recently. We like them all—newbies and stalwarts such as Wine Market and Grand Cru—in different ways, but Vino Rosina really caught our palate. It’s pretty swank, which befits its Harbor East locale. There’s a minimalist cool to the bar and the dining room, but the staff is pretension-free and have plenty to say about the myriad wines offered. They seem not just willing to help you make an informed decision but genuinely excited about it. The food isn’t cheap, and some of the portions can be tiny, but Jesse Sandlin (formerly of Abacrombie and Top Chef) has created a menu of interesting treats that pair beautifully with the wines on hand. The general feeling is decadent but welcoming, and you can’t beat that.
Best First Date Bar
1117 S. Charles St., (410) 727-1212, tavernacorvino.com
For shameless lushes like ourselves, going to a straight-up bar on a first date would be, well, awesome. Hell, just hit up the Mount Royal Tavern and cut swiftly to drunken groping, we say. But more genteel folk may perhaps want to, we dunno, actually get to know each other or something. And in that case, Taverna Corvino in Federal Hill is an ideal option. The place is handsome, laid-back, and relatively quiet; the staff is friendly but unintrusive and well-versed in the broad selection of wines. There’s a cozy al fresco dining area, and the food is elegant and good. On Wednesdays there’s a prix fixe wine tasting, a significantly classier road to the aforementioned drunken groping that we all seek.
Best Place for a Quiet Drink
Birds of a Feather
1712 Aliceanna St., (410) 675-8466, abs.net/~scotchjh
Shut up: We know that drinking alone is one of those top warning signs of alcoholism, but we swear sometimes enjoying a wee glass by ourselves is one of the only things that keeps us sane. And when we want some alone time away from the constant barrage of 21st-century life, ideally we can make it to this always welcoming Fells Point whiskey bar to grab a stool, request a Talisker with a water back, and take as long as needed to sip slowly through one dram and let the day wash away.
Best Daytime Drinking
Sláinte Irish Pub and Restaurant
1700 Thames St., (410) 563-6600, slaintepub.com
If you prefer drinking alone during the daytime, pick a bar that’s pouring early and it’ll likely be lonely. But if you want company, go to a place that’s all about soccer: Sláinte, in Fells Point. At any given moment, somewhere in the world, there’s a televised soccer match going on; if it’s between 7 a.m. and close, Sláinte’s probably showing it. That means soccer fans, pints in hand, will be there watching, despite rain, sleet, snow, hail, and daylight. Go, and learn how soccer hooligans make good daytime drinking buddies, even at breakfast time.
Best Place To Watch UFC
Pratt Street Ale House
206 West Pratt St., (410) 244-8900, prattstreetalehouse.com
It used to be the Wharf Rat, but now it isn’t, though it still serves pretty much the same beers, including all the Olivers’. Hey, we’re kinda confused too, but no matter. As far as we know, PSAH is the only remaining (non-titty) bar in Baltimore that shows UFC pay-per-view events without charging a cover. As bonuses, the beer comes in myriad varieties and potencies, the crowd generally gets into the action without devolving into belligerence, and seating is pretty easy to find, even when there’s a home game. Here’s hoping that Buck can do something to change that last part.
Best Cheap Drinks
Mount Royal Tavern
1204 W. Mount Royal Ave., (410) 669-6686
Maybe you too have purchased an alcoholic beverage with change from around the house: couch cushions, bottom of the hamper, under the keyboard. If that’s the case, then you already know the place to go is the Tavern, where two and a half dollars will get you a rail drink strong enough to kill a small animal or make a human being feel a bit better about buying booze with sofa change. Not that the Tavern is the sort of place to judge . . . anyone.
Best Happy Hour
1703 Aliceanna St., (410) 753-2240, jamurphys.com
Dollar shots of anything in the bar. It may sound gimmicky or somehow untrue, but it’s for real. We first heard about it from bartenders at other bars who go there to pregame before their own shifts—now that is a testament. The drafts aren’t the coldest around, but you do get two-for-one if you ride the water taxi, and the staff is always friendly and fun, so tip big ya cheap bastards—you’re already getting away with robbery here.
Best Tourist-Friendly Bar
1600 Thames St. (410) 276-9719
Even in the general Old Baltimore turf of Fells Point and the adjacent harborside, finding a place that isn’t a total tourist facade yet gives a taste of old-school hard-drinking Port of Baltimore isn’t easy. But we have Duda’s, a sliver of a corner bar that feels hidden next to the main drag, which offers cheap, Old Bay-laden shrimp, peanuts from a fishing bucket, one of the best beer lists west of Max’s, and a good enough Ballmer accent to please a day tripper or fourth-generation Dundalk offspring.
Best Irish Bar
J Patrick’s Irish Pub
1371 Andre St., (410) 244-8613, jpatricks.biz
Irish bars in this country, much like Mexican restaurants, tend to be heavy on the cheese. If you want to wear your kiss me, i’m irish T-shirt and drink a Guinness at O’Something’s, the options are endless. But there’s only one J. Patrick’s. This friendly corner bar in Locust Point is just the sort of warm haven one might hope to encounter after a long damp walk on the moors. The bartenders have a dry wit and a generous pour, and the live Irish music and dancing—nearly every night of the week—is traditional, spirited, and expert.
Best Bar Pool Table
3525 South Hanover St., (410) 354-3750
From the name, the lack of windows, and the location—in the shadow of the I-895 overpass—you might conclude that Grown Folks is a strip club. It is an adult bar, but not in the usual seedy sense. The employees won’t buzz you through from the tiny storefront liquor shop into the spacious back bar unless you’re 30 or over. When we were last in, the middle-aged woman tending bar said the rule was meant to exclude young people “with their pants hanging around their knees.” If nothing else, it means that the pool table in back is nearly always free and there’s plenty of room for that behind-the-back combo shot.
Best Strip Joint, Theatrical Division
8209 Pulaski Highway, Rosedale, (410) 686-1110, facebook.com/crazyrussianveryexoticclub
There’s no nudity at the Crazy Russian. It’s a “pasties club,” which means the, er, nakedest the ladies will go out here on the Rosedale segment of Pulaski Highway is booty shorts and some little stickers over the nipples, so you need to know this is a different kind of club. We’ve deduced that exactly how different is summed up as: Cher. Yeah, have you ever seen a girl come walking out for a twirl to Cher’s 1974 No. 1 Top 40 smash “Dark Lady”? That’s how different. Also, Valeria, genial, hat-wearing host of the Crazy Russian, will stop by and chat with you, a lot, in case you have any questions. Furthermore the dancers perform in costumes all week, and sometimes they hardly even get undressed, because the Crazy Russian has a commitment to cabaret, burlesque, art, even, and so it’s a trippy place to go for a slightly bizarre tincture of strip joint via Weimar Berlin, even if is called Crazy Russian, da?
Best Strip Joint, Booty-Shake Division
10 Custom House Ave., (410) 625-0680, normajeansbaltimore.com
Exotic dancers come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors, so if your tastes favor ladies more heavily touched by Mother Africa’s loving hand, take the corner off Baltimore Street to Custom House Avenue and slide into a chair at Norma Jean’s. Friendly staff at the door and bar complement a wide assortment of ladies with distinct individual movement styles and body types who will shake it, not break it, as you sit there and stare or pretend to concentrate on a game of pool, and the athleticism on the poles is second to none in the city. Try and get there before 10 p.m. on the weekend, because this place fills up fast. Also, pretty good DJ, seriously.
Best Strip Joint, Commerce Division
Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club
409 E. Baltimore St., (410) 468-0990, baltimorehustlerclub.com
Much to our dismay, Larry Flynt subjugated the lovingly restored marquee of the Gayety building to conform to the design standard of his vulgar, effective Hustler smut-mag empire, and in action, the Baltimore Hustler Club prosecutes that branding aesthetic to the fullest with regular “Hustler Honey” amateur stripper nights, a “Barely Legal” room, and the recent addition of an adjacent “Cut and Poke” cigar lounge, featuring indoor smoking and lottery, Keno, and computer-horse-race wagering vices offered by our very own Maryland Lottery. We’ve resisted the Hustler embrace of Baltimore for a long time, but the recent T&T&A book tour event featuring photographer Tony Stamolis’ volume of photographs of nude women juxtaposed with photos of an assortment of tacos is the last straw, forcing us to shake our head and salute the Hustler Club’s Hustle. Also, $15 couch dances.
Best Bar That Melted
Minus5 Ice Lounge
601 East Pratt St., minus5experience.com
Yes, the temporary ice bar at Power Plant Live! was an overpriced gimmick ($18 for the entrance, one drink included). But this summer’s heat curled and shriveled our pride like a clump of dead grass. Everything inside Minus5 was made of ice—beautiful translucent blue Canadian ice—even the glasses. (General Manager Michael Kelley says they went through 500 a week.) You people with air conditioning may have been able to resist its eerie siren song—Do narwhals sing?—but we headed to the coldest double-wide in town before it melted away in mid-August.
Best Gay Event
Guerilla Gay Bar Baltimore
While Prop 8 may be stuck in limbo, the first Friday of every month is an equal-opportunity dance party when Guerilla Gay Bar Baltimore (GGBB) descends on an unwitting so-called “straight” bar and takes over for the night. Bars are announced the Wednesday before the event for those in the know, via the GGBB Facebook group and Google group. Event turn-out for the GGBB crew numbers in the hundreds, not including unsuspecting regulars. Past takeovers include Max’s Taphouse and Mother’s Federal Hill Grille. A mix of people with diverse interests, GGBB brings everyone together to celebrate one thing: Friday.
Best Lesbian Bar
Wherever S.H.E. is
S.H.E. is like your best friend: S.H.E. always wants to go out, can be drunk and disorderly, and sometimes even gets kicked out of bars. Maybe that’s why we love S.H.E. Productions so much. S.H.E. Production company has spent the past few years in the business of bringing the party (and its entourage) wherever S.H.E. goes, be it typical gay and lesbian bars or more conventional digs. While the venue changes as often as the event names—remember Kiss Café?—the players remain the same. And by players, we do mean players.
Best Gay Group You Never Knew Existed
Come one, come all!” is the attitude of the Chesapeake Squares, a GLBTQ (and straight-inclusive) square-dancing club that invites anyone from novice to the squarest of squares. In the Baltimore scene, which can be very. . . well, scenester, Chesapeake Squares breaks the mold by hosting welcoming “open houses” for members and non-members alike. Those whose hearts beat a little faster with calls like “flutterwheel” or “scoot and dodge” can become club members and join in the weekly Tuesday night dances at the Waxter Center. The club’s web site even includes adorable animations of each possible call, so that you can be ready to impress. No partner required.
Best Enough-Already Bar Trend
These annoying-ass drinks seem to have hit their popularity zenith last summer, when those big lever-action manual citrus fruit juicers suddenly became a fixture behind the bar. Thankfully, this trend seems to be on the decline. Because let’s face it, orange-flavored vodka and orange juice is not a cocktail unless you’re in middle school. And just because it’s fresh-squeezed doesn’t validate it (well, OK, maybe a tiny bit); it only makes the people behind you wait that much longer for a real drink. Not to mention it’s an enormous pain in the ass for bartenders.
Best Bar for Smoking Inside and outside
Sky Bar, Mt. Washington Tavern
5700 Newbury St., (410) 367-6903, mtwashingtontavern.com
First of all, the hanging plants at the Sky Bar are thriving more than your lungs if you care about this category, and we do, so we enjoy smoking inside/outside on the Key West-feeling second floor at Mt. Washington Tavern. The bartenders serve Mexican and other bottled beer and blended slushies from the margarita machine while handing you an ash tray without blinking. Here you can still settle in at low tables surrounded with wicker love seats or metal lawn furniture sets with umbrellas, or claim one of the stools at the tall bar tables on white-tiled floors and light up while drinking a cold one on the partly-roofed open space that offers a view of the sun shining during the day and the starry sky at night.
Russell De Ocampo, the Windup Space
12 W. North Ave., (410) 244-8855, thewindupspace.com
What’s the mark of a great bartender? Is it some schmuck that went to “bartending school” and can flip that thing around the other thing like a trained seal? Is it the bartender that can throw down a half dozen drink orders at a time? (That does help, sure.) Nah, it’s the bartender that takes the time to learn your name, talk to you for a bit, make you feel like you’re in a social gathering spot rather than a business. Honestly, there’s probably a dozen regular drinkers at the Windup Space when it’s in bar—and not venue or art opening—mode, but you probably won’t find a much more loyal crew. And, yeah, Russell (formerly of Dougherty’s fame) can make you something pretty fancy if you’re not a dick about it.
Best Local Draft Beer
The Brewer’s Art, 1106 N. Charles St., (410) 547-6925, thebrewersart.com
Zodiac is the new pale ale at Brewer’s and the best local beer on draft in a city that drinks BA’s Ozzy (7.25 percent) and Resurrection (7 percent) like every day is the night before Thanksgiving—the drinkiest night of the year, according to a local pint-slinger we know. Zodiac features a pale ale’s lower fuck-you-up percentage—keeping it less than 5 percent—but rotates the type and amount of hops on a monthly basis—12 times a year, you’re gonna get a little something different in your glass. The editions are named for whatever’s the current astrological sign, but you can just order a Zodiac if you feel like a pussy asking for a Pisces.
City Café, 1001 Cathedral St., (410) 539-4252, citycafebaltimore.com
Just when you thought Satan didn’t make anything more lethally yummy than espresso-flavored vodka, along comes this temptress to steal your soul. Ketel One vodka gets mixed with freshly brewed and then chilled espresso, and a touch of Frangelico gets added to soften the bitterness. The combination is sadistically easy to consume: One minute you’re marveling at how tasty this concoction is, and then one-two-five later you’re wondering how you got to the club and why you’re dancing atop a speaker.
Best Dance Club
1001 N. Charles St., (410) 752-7133, centralstationpub.com
One of the more important traits of an excellent dance club is its ability to make a total dance weenie feel like he or she can let loose. And Grand Central’s been the go-to for just that for, like, ever—the place you can spin around to Chemlab with a shirtless goth at Elektroshock like you just got the use of your legs back. Be goofy, weird, out-of-time, whatever. Grand Central doesn’t judge.
Best Dance Night
Deep in the Game
deepinthegame.tumblr.com, first Fridays at Club Hippo
Mark Brown’s been moving on up in Baltimore for years now. His Are We Not Men party was a classic, and actually got people psyched to go to the Depot for sweaty blowouts with touring party-starters and, sure, even some bands. With DJ comrades Cexman (Cex, aka erstwhile City Paper contributor Rjyan Kidwell) and the Schwarz, he started his new night last year at the Zodiac, moving it eventually to the spacious, decidedly non-hipster digs of Mount Vernon’s Club Hippo, trading creepy clowns for a dance floor best described as a ’70s gay disco mini-roller rink. Music? A lot of everything, from classic house to on-the-edge post-dubstep—though art-scene kids seem to be able to get off on anything.
Best DJs in a Club
Scottie B and Cullen Stalin
Guest or not, Scottie B and Cullen Stalin hold it down every week at Metro Gallery for their No Rule weekly party—kind of a classic meeting of the dance-culture generations. Music skews all over the place, from new-school hype-cuts to classic house and Baltimore club tracks. You know, whatever the room’s into. Also, it should be pointed out that this is one of a couple of regular parties for both DJs—Cullen Stalin has Tax Lo, and Scottie B has a night at West Baltimore’s Club International, which is a cultural transcendence that shouldn’t go unrecognized.?