The MARC’s weekend service, set to begin Saturday, opens a whole new world for anyone interested in exploring Baltimore’s cool and eclectic bar scene. Now it will be cheaper to take the train from Union Station to Penn Station than it is to take a cab from the Rock and Roll Hotel (H Street NE) to the 9:30 Club (U Street NW).
I’ve been drinking in Baltimore since I was 21, and I love to hang out in the city’s myriad corner bars — the kind of places I wish the District had more of. There are many spots that will intrigue Washingtonians, especially those whose only experience in the city is grabbing a beer at Pickles Pub before an Orioles game or sipping a cocktail while waiting for a table at the touted Woodberry Kitchen.
One word of warning: The MARC only runs until 9 p.m., so it’s only useful for an afternoon of barhopping. If you’re going to a show at the Ottobar or dancing at the Get Down, you’re going to have to take Amtrak back to Washington. The one-way base fare is $16, though you can save money by purchasing tickets in advance through www.amtrak.com.
The question: Where to begin? While Baltimore bars are very different than Washington’s — they’re generally much cheaper, for a start — there are similarities, too. Here are some suggestions for a District barfly’s first forays into Charm City.
1028 S. Conkling St. 410-327-0760. www.ofloveandregret.com.
If you’ve heard of this Brewers Hill bar, it’s probably because of co-owner Brian Strumke, who’s gained worldwide acclaim for his Stillwater Ales. You’ll find many Stillwater beers on the 20 taps here, alongside offerings from such collaborators as Denmark’s Evil Twin and Maine’s Oxbow. But this laid-back gastropub has far more than beer: There’s a variety of house-infused spirits, and cocktails are both aged and offered on draft. Snacks range from local sausages and hot pretzels to barbecue brisket on a baguette. The upstairs lounge offers space to relax — and bi-monthly painting classes.
1204 W. Mount Royal Ave. 410-669-6686.
The Mount Royal Tavern is the quintessential Baltimore dive bar. (Your first clue is the “Package Goods” notice on the neon sign outside.) The ceiling is decorated like the Sistine Chapel. The bathrooms are grimy. The strong mixed drinks come in large or small. Two cans of Natty Boh and two large shots of Pikesville Rye will set you back $13. The crowd that pours into this dimly lit room is a fantastic mix of Bolton Hill neighbors, bikers, students from the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art, Station North hipsters and folks who look like they’ve seen better days. The bar is within walking distance of Penn Station, so you can make it a regular stop on your way home.
First Friday of the month at 9 p.m.
Lithuanian Hall, 851 Hollins St.
$10 on your first visit, which includes a required membership to the Lithuanian Hall; $5 on subsequent visits.
Once a month, DJs Rob Fearless, King Gilbert and friends turn the historic Lithuanian Hall into a mod rave-up of rare soul, deep funk, girl-group stompers and popping boogaloo. You’ll see guys in skinny suits and women in vintage dresses, but this is about grooving, not standing around looking good. The drink prices — $2 shots, $1 drafts — are hard to beat. (For December, the party will be held at Metro Gallery, 1700 Charles St., so there’s no membership fee.)
One E. Chase St. 410-347-0888.
The landmark Belvedere Hotel was converted to condos two decades ago, but its gorgeous and classy bar, once a hangout of H.L. Mencken and F. Scott Fitzgerald, survives, hidden in plain sight down a corridor off the lobby. Taxidermied animal heads hang on herringbone brick walls, and stained glass windows are mounted over the massive oak bar. Take note of the decoy-like owl statues over the bar: This was a speakeasy during Prohibition and, as the story goes, if the owls’ eyes blinked, it was okay to order booze. Today, though, you’re more likely to find people ordering pizzas from the brick oven in the corner, or taking advantage of the killer happy hour: $3 beers, rail drinks and wine on weeknights from 4 to 7 p.m.
One E. Chase St. 410-347-0880. www.13floorbelvedere.com.
A private elevator off the Belvedere Hotel lobby whisks you to the rooftop-level 13th Floor bar. What used to remind me of a cruise-ship disco now feels like a ’90s martini lounge with luxe barstools, live jazz and a long cocktail list. It’s a nice date spot, but the reason to go remains the unbeatable views of downtown Baltimore from the large windows.
1712 Aliceanna St. 410-675-8466. www.abs.net/~scotchjh.
The tiny two-room Birds of a Feather can’t match the selection at Jack Rose or the Willard’s Scotch Bar, but that’s not the point. Friendly owner Alicia Horn is often behind the bar, ready to offer suggestions about the 120 single malts, and the pours are far healthier than you’d expect for the price. But the nautical decor, soothing music and parlorlike back room, complete with a fireplace, make this intimate Fells Point bar a place to linger over something peaty on a cold day.
737 S. Broadway. 410-675-6297. www.maxs.com.
Max’s on Broadway has the bona fides to match any beer bar in the region. It has 120 drafts that rotate regularly, five cask ales and a monster list of 1,200 beers in bottles, and regularly hosts theme events, such as the annual Belgian Beer Fest in February. But instead of coming off as a beer geek clubhouse (deservedly so), Max’s is a large two-story drafthouse on Fells Point’s main drag with a ton of TVs, pool, friendly service and walls covered with vintage beer ads. You and your friends can wax lyrical about IPAs from Mikkeller or Burley Oak while the group of bros at the next table drinks Blue Moon and feasts on jalapeno poppers while watching the Ravens. Everyone wins.
507 S. Exeter St. 410-528-8600.
A Southern barbecue joint named after a chef’s pet miniature pig? Sure, why not?
Oliver Speck’s, which opened in Harbor East in September, is run by former “Top Chef” contestant Jesse Sandlin. It’s an attractive high-ceilinged space with long communal tables and racks of veggies in mason jars. The large square bar is inviting, so bring friends to make a meal out of the delicious and affordable bar snacks: a basket of airy pork cracklins dusted with chili ($2); crispy hush puppies with a bowl of honey butter for dipping ($4); a pot of smoky pimento cheese to spread on crackers ($6); and spicy, mustardy deviled eggs ($2). Maryland beers from Stillwater, Union and Burley Oak are on tap; check the chalkboard for specials on bourbon flights.
1724 N. Charles St. 410-727-8815. www.clubcharles.us.
Club Charles has been a Baltimore fixture since the days when a John Waters sighting at the bar was a big deal. Club Chuck — or just “The Chuck,” depending on your level of cool — is a dark, comfortable and oh-so-hip dive filled with cozy little nooks (great if you’re with a group). There’s a fantastic jukebox that always seems to be blasting new-wave or indie hits, and the bartenders are quick to pour strong, cheap cocktails. Its Charles Street location assures a diverse crowd, including — if you believe the History Channel — a ghost or two.
2706 Dillon St. 410-276-9899.
When I messaged a Baltimore-based friend to say that I needed to hit Mahaffey’s Pub on an upcoming visit, he sounded rather concerned. “We’ve taken you there before, I’m sure,” he said. “If we haven’t, then that’s a terrible oversight on my part. Mahaffey’s rules.” He’s not the only one who thinks so: The Baltimore Sun recently named Mahaffey’s the No. 1 bar in Baltimore.
Thankfully, I’d been to Mahaffey’s before, and a return visit reminded me that there’s just so much that’s right about this corner tavern: A stellar craft beer program that includes a visit (and giveaways) from a different brewery every week; one of Baltimore’s best happy hours, where $5 gets you 10-ounce pours of any three drafts every day until 7 p.m. (and all night on Monday); a menu heavy on fried pickles, tangy “Thai Monkey” wings and juicy burgers; and relaxed atmosphere, despite being located in the bar-heavy Canton neighborhood. Mahaffey’s is not a bar that will change your life, but it’s one that you’ll be glad to know.