Everyone has a remedy to beat the summer heat, from a trip to the pool to a snowball from a shack. At Midnight Sun, we prefer the tried, true and futile practice of complaining about unrelenting humidity over cold drinks at a comfortable bar. It accomplishes little besides a buzz, and that's just fine.
On a recent Friday evening, Le Garage Beer Bar & Frites — which opened in May on Hampden's West 36th Street, better known as the Avenue — offered a low-key backdrop for such sweat-induced grumbling. Rather quickly, we realized, Le Garage's attractive setting and charming execution were enough to dissolve our complaints, weather or otherwise.
Part of the French bar and restaurant's appeal is its sense of detachment away from the Avenue. Before finding a seat at the L-shape bar, we walked past the separate Frites Shop — a small lunch take-out serving sandwiches and thick fries — and down a dark, sloping hallway that, because of its angle, does not completely reveal Le Garage until its very end. It's a subtle trick that makes the bustle of the Avenue feel miles, instead of feet, away.
Once we were seated, the ambience took over. The dining room, which dwarfs the bar, is open, but dimly lit, and there is enough space between the two areas to create a sense of vague separation. Conversations were in motion all over Le Garage, but there was never a feeling of unintended eavesdropping. The different shades of wood around the bar and the row of gentle lights above our heads synthesized to create a calming scene seemingly bathed in sepia. It was not a library, though: Laughs and greetings between friends mixed with a soundtrack that included The Beatles' “Eight Days a Week.”
Le Garage's cocktails were some of the most refreshing drinks I've had this summer. A good Mojito or Orange Crush will soothe fine, but those in search of something more inspired — but still crisp and clean like all summer cocktails should be — likely won't be disappointed here.
A couple of standout cocktails at Le Garage both utilize grapefruit juice. It's a smart choice because the fruit's balance of sour and sweet plays well with different liquors. On paper, the Bitter Tryst ($10) — even with its Cold River Gin base — should be too sweet: Swiss bitter orange liqueur, French Blanc vermouth and grapefruit juice. But the cocktail was balanced — allowing the fresh fruit juice to shine, while still affording gin the most prominence.
The Beaute ($10) was fantastic as well. Polish rye vodka and elderflower liqueur provided a detectable-but-smooth bite, and again, the grapefruit juice played an ideal foil to the booze. A garnish of mint added an earthy aroma, and suddenly I longed for a beach and an endless supply of vacation days.
Our bartenders were knowledgeable and happy to offer suggestions based on preferences. The Burley Oak Wit It & Quit It keg had just run out, and our barkeep did not skip a beat to explain the replacement beer's style, taste, alcoholic content and brewing location, without sounding as if he were reading a script. I eventually settled on a different Burley Oak (the IPA Afternoon Delight, $7), but Le Garage's draft list — 14 options, ranging from esoteric locals to true Belgians and more — did not make the decision easy.
Multiple bartenders also executed minor, but important, details, like gently smacking mint to awaken the scent. If a bartender fails to do this, he's doing it wrong, but that was not once the case at Le Garage.
Later in the evening, just after dinnertime, the bar and dining areas were abuzz with parties, but Le Garage's cozy coolness never disappeared. The bartender said most weekend nights were packed, and it seemed this one was on its way, too. The increased foot traffic was a reminder Le Garage was more of a hotspot than a hideaway, and it felt like a testament to deft execution that my experience still felt singular. When I walked back onto the Avenue, the July heat could still be felt, and I wished I had ordered one more round.
Le Garage Beer Bar & Frites
Back story: Opened in May in the former Dogwood space, Le Garage is a relaxed French bistro that has found a following thanks in part to chef Sarah Acconcia's approachable food menu. But don't skip the impressive bar program, whether it's a beer from the all-over-the-map draft list or a cocktail.
Parking: Free lot for patrons behind the restaurant
Signature drink: Le Garage rightfully touts its beer in its name, but it's hard to find a better summer cocktail than the vodka-based Beatue ($10), which benefits from its use of grapefruit juice.
Where: 911 W. 36th St., Hampden
Contact: 410-243-6300, legaragebaltimore.com
Open: 5 p.m.-midnight Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday; 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Monday