The sprawling complex at 2324 Boston St. has a spotty record.
Canton Arts and Entertainment opened there in fall 2009 and fizzled out just several months later. It's not hard to see why — parking is difficult to find and it's tough to fill up such a large building.
But Marc McFaul, who oversees Ropewalk Tavern, Stalking Horse and Delia Foley's, has decided to give it an overhaul by dividing the space into two bars with distinctive personalities.
Open since June, the refurbished venue consists of a Southwestern barbecue bar and restaurant, Dark Horse Saloon, and Finnegan's Wake, an Irish pub. The two bars are decorated in accordance with their concepts; one was busy while I was there, and the other one wasn't; and they both offer exhaustive wings menus. Dark Horse in particular seems to attract a young and boisterous crowd.
But neither place is yet up to the standards of some of the better bars just a block or two away.
Each bar has its respective icon: James Joyce for Finnegan's and spaghetti Western-era Clint Eastwood at Dark Horse.
By now, Joyce's portrait has become to American Irish pubs what posters of "Goodfellas" and "The Godfather" are to Italian joints. At Finnegan's, the small picture hangs above the bar, upstaged by a flashier neon Jameson sign just beneath it.
As at Delia Foley's, authenticity seems to be an afterthought. Instead, Finnegan's falls back on a reliable marketing concept: Stick a James Joyce picture on the wall, sell some Guinness, call it a night. There were more Irish bona fides in Tom Cruise's "Far and Away." This is a problem for those of us who would like our bars to have a personality. I know McFaul is capable; Ropewalk, whatever it's politics, has character in spades, and the same goes for Stalking Horse.
Finnegan's consists of two main rooms, one that revolves around a U-shaped bar and another that functions as a dining room and shares a door with Dark Horse Saloon.
While I was at Finnegan's on a recent Friday night, both rooms were mostly empty and quiet. Dark Horse, on the other hand, felt like Cinco de Mayo.
Walking next door was like going from "Angela's Ashes" to a movie by Michael Bay. A DJ played loud Top 40 music from his laptop; loads of young people crowded at the bar; some people danced, others played pool.
The crowd was so much like Delia Foley's that it struck me that the Federal Hill bar would be far more suited as Dark Horse's companion than Finnegan's. Right now, the Irish pub seems relegated to the place where Dark Horse's guests go when they want some quiet time.
Where the decor at Finnegan's is low-key, at Dark Horse it's garish: there's an oversized mural of Clint Eastwood circa "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" by the bar, animal skulls hang from door frames and there are, unfortunately, cigar-store Indians. They might fit the theme at Dark Horse, but they're tacky at best and racially insensitive at worst.
There were other problems. While both bars offer 30 flavors of wings, they were all unavailable at 10 p.m., because the kitchen for both venues was closed. At the Red House Tavern, just two blocks away, the kitchen — which offers a far more sophisticated menu — stays open until midnight.
Dark Horse boast that "We never close early" — and yet the kitchen isn't open past primetime.
There is also nothing inspiring about the beer menu at Dark Horse: I counted eight drafts (Heavy Seas Loose Cannon and Sierra Nevada were sold by the bottle); there could be more, but neither beers nor spirits are included in the menu.
While there is some overlap in the food and drink menus, Finnegan's and Dark Horse offer different beers and food.
Neither bar has a proper website — not even a Twitter account — which in this day and age seems as misguided as buying a cigar store Indian.
When recommending a bar, I go by one basic principle: Am I happy here, or would I rather be elsewhere? While at Finnegan's/Dark Horse, The Gin Mill, Red House, even The Bay Cafe, all seemed like better places to spend the night.
Finnegan's Wake/Dark Horse Saloon
Back story: The original Canton Arts and Entertainment, which included a bar called My Generation, an oyster bar the Black Pearl and a restaurant named Gutman's, opened in September 2009 and closed in March 2010. It reopened last fall as a private party space until McFaul split it into two bars this June.
Parking: Tricky at best. After 10 minutes, I decided to park by the Outback Steakhouse on Boston Street. Warning: That lot is for Outback, and you may get towed. Proceed at your own risk. Or take a cab.
Where: 2324 Boston St.
Contact: 443-449-7075 for Finnegan's Wake; 443-449-7075 for Dark Horse
Open: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays-Fridays; 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Sunday. Kitchen closes at 10 p.m.
Price range: $5 rail drinks, $4.50 Guinness
Crowd: mixed at Finnegan's; almost exclusively under 30 at Dark Horse.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun