By Fritz Hahn
Friday, August 3, 2007
When talk turns to night life in Montgomery County, the cities of Bethesda and Silver Spring tend to dominate the conversation.
It's not as if the central and northern parts of the county are bereft of places to get a drink or hear a band -- Gaithersburg's Growlers brew pub and Dogfish Head Alehouse are among the nightspots that have been covered in these pages -- but the concentration of restaurants and bars in the close-in suburbs means they attract newer, splashier gathering places.
Looking for something different, I decided to leave the Beltway behind, making trips up Interstate 270 to Frederick and detouring for freshly brewed beer, competition-quality pool tables, poker games and plenty of live music. Here's what you'll find if you venture up that way.Gordon Biersch
200 E. Middle Lane, Unit A, Rockville
Diners searching for a bite to eat around the new Rockville Town Center will find many overly familiar names such as Potbelly, Cosi, Austin Grill and La Tasca, so it figures that the best place to grab a drink is also a chain. Thankfully for German-beer lovers, it's a Gordon Biersch brew pub.
Open since May, this is the area's third Gordon Biersch, following locations in Penn Quarter and Tysons Corner Center, and like the others, it makes only traditional lagers, ranging from the light Golden Export to dark Schwarzbier, which has a nice roasted malt flavor. Brewer Jim Sobchak comes from Fordham Brewing in Annapolis, and so far I've enjoyed most of his offerings, including the hoppy Czech Pilsner. However, the crisp, slightly fruity Sommerfest, which my bartender pushed as "great for hot weather," tastes listless and smells slightly funky.
Gordon Biersch offers only its own products on draft, and the bartenders are patient with first-time visitors who ask for Budweiser or Guinness. The best jumping-off point for newbies is a sampler of five house beers for $5.75, but if you're curious about only one or two, the bartenders will pour a shot-glass-size taste for free. Beers cost about $5 each and arrive in fancy German-style glasses measured in half liters, not pints.
The building itself is inviting, with a modern look and a two-sided bar that faces a breezy veranda and a television-filled lounge. (Stools on the outdoor half are filled much more quickly.) A few tables are available on the wide sidewalk, though the seating areas are surrounded by low metal fences that make customers look as if they're dining in cribs.
Happy hour draws workers from the nearby county government buildings as well as groups heading to the Regal Cinemas across the street. From 4 to 6:30 weekdays and from 10 p.m. to last call Sunday through Thursday, take $1 off beers and $2 off wines, and pay $5 for house martinis, mojitos and margaritas. Mini pizzas, wings, egg rolls and other appetizers cost $4.95 during these times; skip the soggy, lifeless garlic fries, even though the staff highly recommends them.Orange Ball Billiards and Cafe
430 Hungerford Dr., Rockville
There's nothing like playing pool in the backroom of a neighborhood dive -- I've got a soft spot for quarter-operated tables in smoky rooms -- but the striking Orange Ball Billiards has raised the bar for D.C. area pool halls.
The spacious former furniture store is filled with rows of gorgeous Brunswick Gold Crown pool tables, all 28 of which are covered in smooth, championship-quality Simonis cloth. Forget the scuffed and stained tables at your local saloon: These babies are kept in tip-top shape because Orange Ball hosts tournaments on the regional pro-am Tiger Pool Tour, which offers thousands of dollars in cash prizes. Sticks are straight and balls run true, so if you scratch while trying to drop a ball into the corner pocket, you have no one to blame but yourself.
Pool is the focal point, but Orange Ball also serves as an above-average sports bar. More than 40 televisions of varying sizes cover the walls, including several huge projection screens that are put to good use for pay-per-view boxing events. Eight dartboards hang on the walls. Groups of leather couches and love seats are arranged for lounging around the room. Bartenders are quick, even when crowds surround the circular bar, and a number of nightly specials means drinks are almost always on the cheap side. Too bad food isn't a strong point.
You'd think billiards, darts and dozens of TVs would be enough of a draw, but Orange Ball has more activities scheduled than the summer session at the local rec center. The kickball crowd comes by for friendly (if noisy) beer pong tournaments on Tuesdays. (Games start at 9, but teams generally arrive earlier for "practice" at 7.) Wednesday's 9-ball tournament brings out professionals and amateurs; the only requirement for entry is the $20 fee.
Poker players can enjoy a few hands of Texas Hold 'Em from Saturday through Wednesday. Trivia geeks get their game on Tuesday nights. Dart and 8-ball leagues call Orange Ball home on Wednesdays.
On weekends, dancers take over a section of the floor around the dart lanes as a DJ spins hip-hop, Top 40, salsa and reggae, and on the last Saturday of the month, the Fiesta Latina adds merengue, reggaeton and salsa to the mix, along with margarita specials.
Of course, this is a pool hall, and so it attracts groups of young men that hang out and occasionally get rowdy -- that's why you'll find dress codes and burly security guards with metal detectors at the front door Fridays and Saturdays. But Orange Ball's positives -- pool tables, beer pong, poker and plenty of televisions -- make this a place to consider the next time you want to play billiards or watch a game.Outta the Way Cafe
17503 Redland Rd., Derwood
A neighborhood institution for nearly two decades, the Outta the Way Cafe is as hidden as its name suggests, tucked into the rear of a strip shopping center off Muncaster Mill Road. But stop in on a Friday night and you might have a hard time finding a bar stool -- and a hard time finding anyone younger than 30 sitting on one.
On Friday and Saturday nights, the attraction is cover bands that focus on music from the '60s and '70s -- think classic rock renditions of "Sunshine of Your Love," "Secret Agent Man" and "Love Me Two Times" -- or rocking blues musicians, though you'll also get singer-songwriters playing Jimmy Buffett and the Gin Blossoms. Bands set up in the red-walled dining room, where boomer-age customers sit at tables and watch supper-club style, though the music carries through the stained-glass windows that separate the restaurant from the dimly lit bar. (You don't have to pay a cover charge if you're just having a drink.)
During football season, the bar is filled with Pittsburgh Steelers fans watching their team on the 11 televisions, including two huge eight-foot screens. "It's just like being on the South Side of Pittsburgh on Sundays," co-owner Brian Marshall boasts.
The wings are the stars of the menu: Eight varieties are served, from ginger and wasabi to Cajun spice, though I'm partial to the combination Swing Wings, which feature a mix of the cafe's teriyaki and hot sauces, plus a solid shake of Old Bay seasoning.
A steady group of regulars has built up over the years, and folks hanging out at the bar make a point of getting up to greet arriving friends. At one end of the room, a "Wall of Shame" has framed photos of customers celebrating Christmases, New Year's Eves and birthdays past. "That's 18 years of fun," Marshall says, pointing out that "there's always room to add more."
Happy hour runs from 4 to 7 weekdays and features $1 off all drinks as well as appetizer specials (wings, nachos, etc.). Stop by to listen to some tunes -- there's a Thursday open mike as well as the weekend performances -- and you may eventually find your picture up with all the others.Cafe Tacuba Restaurant
19741 Frederick Rd., Germantown
If you like live rock music, Cafe Tacuba wants to be your weekend destination. If you prefer to dance to salsa, don't worry -- they've got that covered, too.
Every Friday, the Mexican restaurant hosts Rock Night, which can mean Spanish-speaking alternative groups or English-language punk taking the stage in the medium-size bar area. Since the performers are local, there's generally no cover. One warning: DJs might replace the band, so it's best to check the bar's Web site or call first; I showed up one Friday and found myself watching salsa videos.
Saturday's Latin Night features salsa or merengue bands and DJs that get the crowd moving toward the small dance floor in front of the stage. (Between sets, audience members sometimes get up to sing karaoke, which is a fun touch.) Most of the acts are from the Washington region, though groups from Colombia and Venezuela are on the schedule for the next two months. Regardless of the headliner, the cover is $10.
A Thursday night karaoke contest kicked off recently, and at the end of the eight-week competition, the winner will go home with $1,000. (Runners-up get $500 and $250.) If you want to participate, arrive early this Thursday to sign up. Judges will cut the field to 20 contestants by the end of the night.
Music on weekends goes until 2 a.m. and so does the kitchen, dishing out hearty appetizers such as crispy crabmeat flautas and chorizo-filled tortillas. (The full menu is served until 11, but it's easy to make a meal of the quesadillas.)
Daily happy-hour specials include $2.50 domestic drafts and $3 margaritas. Given those prices, the bucket of six Corona bottles for $20 doesn't seem like much of a deal.
Even without live entertainment, Cafe Tacuba is a fun place. The bar, which has never met a Corona promotional item it didn't love, has plenty of seats and a foosball table, and the margaritas and frozen cocktails are crowd pleasers.The Music Cafe
26528-B Ridge Rd., Damascus
Lattes are the drink of choice at the Music Cafe, a year-old coffeehouse and performance space in Damascus. "We're in a dry town, so we can't serve alcohol," explains owner Kurt Esche, but he says the lack of booze hasn't hurt. "There's a lot of people that don't want to be in a bar atmosphere, so it does help with that."
Live music is featured every Friday and Saturday night, with bands setting up in a corner of the brightly lit room across from the espresso bar and next to bookcases holding well-thumbed paperback books and board games. There's a $5 cover, but children younger than 12 are admitted free, so families come in and find tables where they can sit and enjoy the music, stuffed animals and coloring books in tow.
Don't expect to hear any Wiggles, though. The Music Cafe has featured the likes of the Blues Vultures, a rootsy rock band led by former Kix guitarist Ronnie Younkins, and up-and-coming honky-tonk singer Ty Braddock. The bluesy Mary Shaver Band is headlining the cafe's first-anniversary celebration Aug. 18. "We don't have one set genre" of music, Esche says. "It's a lot of classic rock and country and blues, but it's a variety of everything. We're not stale."
Bands perform from 8 to 10:30, and the early start helps Mom and Dad catch the band before the kids need to go to bed. An open mike is held Tuesdays and Thursdays, and a charity Texas Hold 'Em tournament raises money for cancer research every Monday night.
Though the Music Cafe lacks the standard trappings of a rock-and-roll venue -- beer, dim lights, an 18-and-older crowd -- the sound is great, and the espresso and frozen frappe drinks are well-made. Don't forget to peruse the selection of local CDs while you're waiting for your drink.Pelican Pete's
12941 Wisteria Dr., Germantown
Pelican Pete's looks every bit the ideal of an Eastern Shore seafood restaurant, down to the large plastic sport fish hanging on wood-paneled walls. Keno plays on televisions above the bar alongside "SportsCenter," baseball games and poker tournaments, and waitresses deliver crab dishes to the high-backed booths.
Drink prices are just as un-Washington: The dirt-cheap happy hour means $1.50 domestic drafts and $2.50 bottles and mixed drinks from 4 to 7, plus discounted appetizers. On Sundays and Wednesdays, karaoke fills the air.
On weekends, though, Pelican Pete's looks more spring break than beach week, slammed with younger 20-somethings dancing, gossiping, practicing pickup lines and showing off their new Hollister polos and Abercrombie skirts. The bartenders are run ragged by crowds shouting for Miller Lite bottles, mini pitchers of Budweiser and shooters, and the long bar area is packed three deep. Why? Draft beers are $2.25 and mixed drinks are about a buck more.
The noise and energy (and the drink prices) remind me of my days bar-hopping in College Park. If you don't want to relive your college years -- or if you're older than, say, 27 -- you might want to skip this one or come during the week when the pace is slower. On the other hand, that's missing the point.Bentz Street Sports Bar
6 S. Bentz St., Frederick
This used to be the Bentz Street Raw Bar, which featured Maryland crabs and live jazz and blues music, but when new owners took over in 2004, they dumped the "raw" for "sports" and turned the converted garage into a hard-partying nightspot.
Most of the space is given over to a dining room with huge booths and walls lined with flat-screen TVs. On Fridays, modern rock and cover bands take over the stage that fills one corner, while DJ Savure gets hands in the air and bodies grinding to hip-hop, R&B and techno on Saturdays, when a diverse post-college crowd shows up to dance or just hang out at the bar. On Mondays and Wednesdays, a few dozen people show up for Texas Hold 'Em tournaments (starting at 7 and 10 p.m.) and half-price burgers or wings.
Pool tables fill a narrow room in the rear, but it's better to push past to the wooden back deck, which overlooks the canal-like Carroll Creek and the historic downtown. On Thursday night, DJ Savure spins on the patio and bartenders serve drinks from the outdoor bar.
Sports becomes a more important part of the programming in the fall, when college alumni groups gather to watch football games. (Penn State and West Virginia are the biggest draws.) Weekend NASCAR viewing parties merit exclusive drink specials, including $2 domestic drafts.
Two things to watch out for: Parking can be a bit of a pain, since the bar is a couple of blocks west of downtown. And special mention must be given to the cramped bathrooms, which are some of the worst I've seen in a while. They're going to be renovated soon, according to taped-up signs. It can't come soon enough.Brewer's Alley
124 N. Market St., Frederick
On a rainy Saturday night, Brewer's Alley is packed. Double-dating couples share tables, groups of 20-something guys in ball caps are standing at the bar cheering on the Orioles, who are beating the Yankees on the flat-screen TVs, and the bartenders are pouring beer after beer. Domed lamps overhead are casting a soft -- make that flattering -- yellow light onto the crowd and the walls of the 19th-century building, which formerly served as Frederick's City Hall.
I push my way to the front of the high-ceilinged pub, past gleaming copper tanks where the beers are made, and order a pint of the special Resinator Double IPA. The cask-conditioned ale is pumped into my glass by hand, as it might be in an English tavern. The bartender brings me a pint of dark liquid with a rich head. "Three dollars," he says, setting it on the weathered wooden bar. Three dollars? Wait, is there a Saturday happy hour? Score!
Apparently living in Washington skews your perception of the price of alcohol. Three bucks is the regular price for one of the award-winning beers at Brewer's Alley, which is nearly half what some inside-the-Beltway brew pubs charge. Six of Tom Flores's creations are on draft at any time, and the Dunkleweizen -- a dark, spicy wheat beer -- the golden Koelsch and that delicious Double IPA are all standouts. It's worth the $6 (including tax) you pay for a sampler, which arrives as six five-ounce glasses on a little Lazy Susan. You'll want to pick something to go with the fish and chips, because the North Carolina catfish, cooked in a spicy Old Bay batter and served with tangy coleslaw, is better than any I've had in a while.
As lively as Brewer's Alley is on weekends, I think I prefer the slower pace of weekdays. The patio offers great people-watching of folks on Market Street, the city's main drag for dining and window shopping. Mondays and Tuesdays feature jazz upstairs, beginning at 8, and during Wednesday's happy hour, which runs from 8 to close, beers are $1.50 and there's a free Cajun buffet from 9 until the food runs out. (If you prefer cocktails to beer, mixed drinks are also cheap; they sell for $2 during weekday happy hours, which run from 4 to 7.)
Fritz Hahn is the bars and clubs editor for washingtonpost.com.