I’ve been drinking in bars in Baltimore since I was in college. It was always fun, but it was more of a flirtation: a few visits a year timed around a friend’s birthday, a cultural festival or an Orioles game.
Then, in 2013, MARC trains began running from Union Station to Penn Station every weekend, with fares cheaper than taking a cab to U Street. That was as jarring as receiving a Facebook message from an old high school flame. Before I knew it, my interest was rekindled, and I was heading up to Baltimore on weekends.
Yes, I haunt D.C.-area bars most nights for work. But there’s just something about going out in Baltimore that turns my head: It’s the lack of pretense, and a lack of caring about the lack of pretense. For some bars in Washington, “unpretentiousness” is something to be pushed, like a menu of craft cocktails. In Baltimore, it’s just expected. It’s in the air at Mount Royal Tavern, the decades-old dive bar where the ceiling is painted like the Sistine Chapel, the mixed drinks are as strong as they are cheap, and the crowd is as diverse as you could hope for. One Friday afternoon, a friend and I ordered Natty Bohs at the bar, and the bartender delivered them with heavy-handed pours of Pikesville Rye. “Happy Friday,” she said, as she pushed the shot glasses toward us.
I don’t want to slip into “Wire”-isms and describe Baltimore’s bars as more “gritty” or “real” than Washington’s. The city’s watering holes cover the entire spectrum: I’ve enjoyed fantastic amaro cocktails at W.C. Harlan, a speak-easy-ish bar in Remington, and tasted my way through pricy Belgian ales at Max’s on Broadway.
But when I visit friends on weekends, our plan is usually to barhop among neighborhood taverns: In Highlandtown we’ll stop at the Venice Tavern, which has a painting of Franklin D. Roosevelt behind the bar because he was president when Prohibition ended — and the basement bar opened. Then we might grab a booth at the Laughing Pint, a TV-free corner bar with a seafoam-green-and-orange color scheme, where paintings (for sale!) by local artists hang on the wall. We can spend hours ordering domestic and craft beers and never pay more than $5 for one, a common theme across town.
If we go out in Fells Point, for cocktails at Rye or beers at Max’s, there’s a strong chance we’ll find ourselves seeking refuge at BAR, a slightly grimy dive festooned with Christmas lights year-round, where the attractions are a wonky pool table and a bartender who gives non-regulars the once-over.
Even when Baltimore’s bars get fancy, they do it in an unpretentious manner: Bad Decisions doesn’t look like much. But the one-room bar is known for its thick, handwritten cocktail menu, full of clever takes on daiquiris and tiki drinks, and the shelves behind the bar hold bottles of trendy Japanese bourbon.There are about four tables, overseen by a painting of Kramer from “Seinfeld.” And none of this feels forced or theme-y, the way it might if the same bar opened in Shaw.
The city also throws up its share of surprises: Once, I went to the annual Ukrainian Festival in Patterson Park and wound up spending the night playing foosball and doing shots of Medivka, a Ukrainian honey liqueur, at the Dnipro Ukrainian Sports Club in Canton afterwards, thanks to some members we met at the festival.
I can’t imagine that happening in Washington.