Like many Washingtonians, I'd love to see the Montreal Expos move to the nation's capital next season. But until that happens, baseball-starved fans will continue to travel to Baltimore to watch the Orioles. And because the Birds probably won't set the American League alight this season, a trip to Camden Yards becomes a great excuse to spend a day (or night) out with friends.
If you go up for a game, take baseball's leisurely pace to heart.
Whether the first pitch is on a weekday evening or a weekend afternoon, there's usually plenty of time to do something else before or after the game. After all, you've already made the effort to get to Baltimore. To get you started, there are a number of bars and pubs within walking distance of the ballpark, many of which have game-day specials.
Some friends and I recently ventured up for a weekend game against the Boston Red Sox, and our first stop was Max's at Camden Yards (300 West Pratt St.; 410-234-8100). You may have visited its sister bar, Max's on Broadway in Fells Point, and the Camden Yards location attracts a similar crowd of casually dressed men and women in their 20s and 30s. The bar and restaurant area inside is often cramped, but the spacious patio has a number of tables, heat lamps to ward off the chill and two satellite bars. One has six taps, which include craft beers such as Stoudt's American Pale Ale, Magic Hat and Red Hook ESB, and the other just sells cans. And no matter where you sit, there's a great view into the stands at Oriole Park.
The signs advertising "Maryland's largest draft selection" are a bit misleading -- they're combining the number of taps at both Max's locations. But with 44 beers available inside and the six outside, plus plenty more in bottles, Max's at Camden Yards offers the most choices in the neighborhood.
Despite the views, Max's isn't the closest bar to Oriole Park. That honor goes to Sliders Bar and Grill (504 Washington Blvd.; 410-547-8891), which is located just a traffic island away from third base. It's a cozy, unpretentious tavern that was packed right before the game. To ease the pressure inside, the short stretch of pavement outside the bar was closed to traffic, and a beertender was selling cans of Bud from a cooler by the door. Groups of fans were standing in the street or on the sidewalk. "Boston is a big series, and we sell a lot of beer, so in order to keep people satisfied we get permission to close the street," said General Manager Kristin Olsson.
We thought it was a great idea, but Olsson said it only gets better.
"Depending on the big series for the month -- like the Yankees or the Phillies -- we bring in beer vendors and a grill for pit barbecue, hamburgers and hot dogs, and set up tables so people can eat outside," she explained. "We'll have some live music, too. Last year, for example, Red Stripe sponsored a few parties, and we had reggae bands and the Red Stripe girls giving away T-shirts."
A few times this season, Sliders will join with the neighboring Pickles Pub (520 Washington Blvd.; 410-752-1784) and shut down an entire block of the boulevard.
After a quick drink at Sliders, our group went to check out Pickles. "I don't know if we should go in," said my friend, Marc. "Did you see all the signs in the windows? This place is catering to Red Sox fans." Sure enough, in between the neon beer signs, notices read: "Sox fans, we have all the Sam Adams you need!" Talk about waving a Nomar Garciaparra jersey in front of a bull -- the place was full of folks sporting the wrong color shirts.
Unlike its neighbor, Pickles doesn't usually allow outdoor drinking, and its two rooms were packed. We noticed the pickle-green walls, the bumpy, industrial-quality floor and tables piled high with empty bottles, cans and plates. Still, the beer is cheap (drafts are around $3), and the bartenders ring a loud bell 10 minutes before the first pitch to give folks a chance to get to their seats.
If you'd prefer to gather somewhere with less hustle and bustle, two restaurant-bars on Pratt Street are great choices. The Wharf Rat at Camden Yards (206 West Pratt St.; 410-244-8900) is a microbrewery that mixes English-style pub decor with gleaming beer vats, and it has long been one of my favorite Baltimore bars. The house specialties are British ales, and there are usually at least a dozen on draft (which change seasonally) as well as four real ales, hand-pulled from casks and served at cellar temperature. If you want the familiar, the bar offers plenty of choices on draft and in bottles, from Guinness to Rogue. The menu features staples like fish and chips and meatloaf, as well as a very tasty crab dip and heaping plates of nachos.
Monday through Saturday, the Wharf Rat also offers one of the best happy hours in the city: three half-pints of beers for three dollars. Sadly, this special isn't offered when the Orioles are playing at home, but all the house beers are cheaper than $4 a pint, anyway. If you're waiting for friends, venture upstairs to the Wharf Rat's game room, which features pool, foosball and Golden Tee. In nice weather, seats on the brick patio -- shared with the neighboring Downtown Seafood Exchange (200 West Pratt St.; 410-659-5844) -- go quickly.
Baltimore sports fans got a bit of a shock this year when the Downtown Sports Exchange became the Downtown Seafood Exchange and announced that a new seafood-heavy menu would debut on May 1. Would the ballcap-and-college-T-shirt crowd be replaced by suits dining on shellfish? Not quite. The three-story building still has multiple bars and dozens of TVs, many tuned to ESPN or CNN, and retains its popular game-day drink specials. Before the game, 24-ounce "Bombers" of draft beer are $5. And from the seventh inning until last call, domestic draft beers are $2 a pint and microbrews and imports just $3. The third-floor patio is often rented out for private events on game days, but if it's open, it's a cool, shady spot to hang out.
Closer to the Inner Harbor is the Orioles Bar and Grill (300 S. Charles St.; 410-962-8300). Although it's located on the second floor of the Sheraton Inner Harbor hotel, we had high hopes for the joint -- it sports the Orioles name and official logo. What we found was a very bland (and nearly empty) bar and restaurant area with little character and little to recommend it. The tan walls are decorated with jerseys signed by legends like Earl Weaver, Jim Palmer and, er, Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis. If you sit at the bar, you can watch sports on numerous television screens.
If you sit in the lounge, you can look out over the Inner Harbor and downtown Baltimore. That's about it.
After the final out, we headed up Eutaw Street to the Upper Deck (34 S. Eutaw St.; 410-752-1915), which is located across from the Bromo-Seltzer tower and a block up from Pratt Street. (To be honest, we were lured by an ad promising two-for-one drinks with a ticket stub.) Although it's so close, this second-floor bar had more occupants sporting mullets than game jerseys, and as many folks watching the Super-Shot mini-basketball game as staring at the televisions.
Other specials here included $3 beers and $1 Jell-O shooters, which are served in small plastic cups -- think of the containers you'd use for ketchup at a fast-food joint. Flavors included margarita, island passion and cherry. The Upper Deck is a fairly anonymous room, but the bartenders are friendly, and it's worth a visit if you're looking for a more divelike atmosphere. (Just beware of the gentlemen's club next door.) The Camden Pub (647 West Pratt St.; 410-547-1280) is also off the Inner Harbor-to-Camden Yards strip, which means you can actually get a seat after the game. Located west of Oriole Park and around the corner from the Babe Ruth Museum, this is a low-key sports tavern -- the walls are covered with game photos, jerseys and memorabilia. Camden Pub's menu focuses on burgers and other bar standards. For a taste of the neighborhood, try the spicy Bawlmer wings, which are cooked with butter and Old Bay seasoning.