Embracing Baltimore dive bars' familial atmospheres, cheap prices

Celebrating our dive bars, which are an art form in Baltimore.

The dive bar is an art form in Baltimore.

As more new establishments open with flashy concepts housed in swanky settings, the need for our favorite watering holes — the ones that feel most comfortable and familiar — only deepens. This is still a blue-collar city, and the decades-old, no-frills dive bars represent a necessary balance to the rise of $12 cocktails, pricey charcuterie and bartenders too busy to strike up a conversation.

In a sea of dive bars, it’s a futile task to try and definitively name Baltimore’s best. The truth is, they come in all shapes and sizes, with charms and shortcomings that aren’t always easy to distinguish between. Instead, we offer these options as some of our favorite dive bars worth your time. Maybe you’ll become the next regular.

Butts & Betty’s Tavern

2200 Gough St., Upper Fells Point, 410-276-9186

Open: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily

Why you should go: Pool table, reasonable prices and a friendly staff — a Baltimore dive bar in a nutshell.

Not long ago, Cindy Ward-Johnson, owner of Butts and Betty’s Tavern, fielded a question from a caller.

“Someone said, ‘Tell me exactly what you do there. Do you give butt injections?’” Ward-Johnson said recently, standing in her Upper Fells Point bar. “This person was totally serious, I swear to God. I’m like, ‘No! This is a tavern.’”

Not everyone is in the know, but those who’ve grabbed a beer here quickly realize Butts and Betty’s is a dive bar any neighborhood would be lucky to have. It’s a family-owned business with friendly people behind the bar, Keno, a jukebox and cheap drinks ($2 National Bohemian cans, $4.50 craft drafts).

Ward-Johnson grew up in the apartment above the bar, which has been open for 70 years and was known as Max’s Tavern before the current name. She now operates Butts & Betty’s with the help of her mother, Betty Ward.

To her surprise, she often hears from customers that her tavern is their favorite in the city. Their reasons are the same as regular Zack Sutley’s — it’s the close-knit atmosphere.

“It’s like our own little dysfunctional family,” Sutley said with a laugh. “It’s like Thanksgiving — you’re always yelling at each other, but you get along afterward.”

But what about that name — where did it come from? Ward-Johnson’s mother demanded her husband add her name to the sign. (“My mother wanted her name up in lights. … I remember as a kid it used to be a battle,” she said.)

And Butts? It was a nickname her father picked up from his father, even though he never knew its origins. Like plenty of nicknames, it just stuck.

“He didn’t know if it was because his father smoked cigarettes or liked butts or whatever,” Ward-Johnson said, smiling. “People are always curious about that story.”

The Drinkery

205 W. Read St., Mount Vernon, 410-225-3100

Open: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily

Why you should go: As the number of Baltimore gay bars dwindles, the Drinkery remains.

There’s a good chance that no matter the time of day you visit this staple of Baltimore’s gay-bar scene, you’re going to find a crowd, said bartender Sven Kow.

Open at 11 a.m. each day, the Drinkery — which opened 44 years ago, and is owned by Frederick Allen and Amy Wolfe — boasts one of the more generous happy hours in the city. It’s every day from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., and features two-for-one domestic beers for $4.25. (Even better: Patrons can currently get that deal for Miller Lite all day, Kow said.)

Bargoers can find karaoke on Fridays and Saturdays in the Drinkery’s back bar, and the TVs are typically tuned to local sports.

But it’s the inclusive, come-as-you-are atmosphere that has made the Drinkery a local favorite.

“We welcome everyone, no matter what your sexual orientation is,” Kow said. “It’s not a pretentious bar. You can be dressed casually, and just be yourself.”

Earlier this year, the Drinkery’s future seemed in doubt when the Baltimore liquor board pulled the bar’s license, only to reverse the decision and renew the license weeks later. (Nearby residents initially raised concerns about late-night crime and noise outside the Drinkery; the license was renewed after Allen moved for reconsideration.)

Kow said the closing “would have been a tremendous loss to the community.” Wolfe and Kow say the outpouring of support to keep the Drinkery open — they gathered hundreds of signatures to submit to the liquor board — shows what the bar means to the city.

“Our customer base is just amazing,” Wolfe said. “They’re very supportive of each other, and our bartenders are supportive of them. It’s just a really great all-around place to be.”

iBar

2118 Maryland Ave., Charles North, ibarbaltimore.com, 443-759-6147

Open: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday; 1 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday; noon-midnight Sunday

Why you should go: Some of the best chicken wings in the city in a friendly space.

A first-timer can walk into this Charles North bar and be fine knowing only four words: “Chef-style, fried hard.”

“We’re known for our wings. That’s our biggest thing,” said Rebecca Holter, who owns iBar with her husband, Jeffrey Holter, the chef.

Since they opened iBar in 2005, Jeffrey Holter’s garlic-and-Parmesan “chef-style” sauce has become the menu’s signature item. Regulars order it on the side of everything. (“Fried hard” describes the extra-long, extra-crispy cooking style so many regulars prefer.)

Rebecca Holter acknowledges that another Baltimore bar known for its wings served as inspiration.

“We used to go to Kisling’s [Tavern] before we opened up our bar,” Rebecca Holter said of the Canton corner spot. “We made them similar to that. We just perfected it.”

Beyond the above-average bar food, iBar features a noticeably friendly and helpful staff. No scoffing at splitting checks here, and they’re known to concoct “guess-the-flavor” Long Island iced teas.

The two-floor building — especially the wood-paneled basement — feels instantly familiar, with the type of beer and sports memorabilia you’d expect at a neighborhood joint. For football, Ravens fans know the upstairs bar will have the sound, while the basement accommodates Buffalo Bills fans, a running tradition.

Above all else, iBar stands out for its diverse clientele, Rebecca Holter said.

“We have black, white, gay, straight, trans — every kind of person comes in here,” she said. “We make you feel comfortable. No one’s going to judge you.”

Venice Tavern

339 S. Conkling St., Highlandtown, 410-732-3045

Open: 8 a.m.-2 a.m. daily

Why you should go: Affordable craft beer, no happy hour needed.

About a decade ago, Dominic DeSantis took over the family business — a quaint bar in the basement of a Highlandtown corner house his great-grandparents purchased in the 1920s. It became clear to DeSantis, who also owns the more modern Hudson Street Stackhouse in Canton, that he signed up for “a tough gig.”

“At first, it wasn’t the smartest business decision,” DeSantis said. “I said, ‘Look, if I’m going to stay involved in the picture here, we’re going to start doing some new things.’”

That meant embracing craft beer while keeping the prices down. Craft brewers, including Dundalk’s Key Brewing Co., can be found on Venice Tavern’s 14 taps. (Coors Light remains for the mainstream crowd.) The best part is Venice charges a flat rate of $3 for each pint.

“If you call us a craft-beer bar, we’re the cheapest that there is,” DeSantis said. “If I put a beer on that costs me $2.75 to pour, it’s three bucks. That’s just what we do here, and I’m going to keep running with it.”

The clientele has become a mix of Venice’s regulars from decades ago and newcomers stumbling upon it from nearby neighborhoods like Canton and Brewers Hill, he said. From the former, he hears blasts from the past often.

“I’ve gotten to know a lot of the local regulars that still come in and tell me stories about how they used to see my great-grandmother down here,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis is still trying to figure out how to strike the balance between new and old at Venice Tavern, and it hasn’t always been easy.

“It’s been a tough go at it here, and I feel like we’ve turned a bend here a little bit, but we’ve still got a ways to go,” DeSantis said. “It was near and dear to me, if you will. I didn’t want to close the place up and start something fresh. I wanted to keep it running.”

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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