Sitting atop the Belvedere like a brilliant Christmas ornament, the recently renovated 13th Floor will likely impress first-timers the moment its elevator doors open to the intimate space.
First, they'll wonder: Is this view really of Baltimore? Then: Is this bar really in Baltimore?
Aesthetically, the 13th Floor is that beautiful. The low-lit room feels illuminated — just enough — by the countless number of lights dotting downtown outside. But its lighting and dark decor keep the mood romantic, in a non-showy way.
On a recent Friday night, a crowd of 25 quietly conversed and sipped expensive cocktails as a piano player provided a smooth, barely-there jazz soundtrack. It was around 10 p.m. and the tiny room — which can hold 125 people — felt nearly empty. The setting felt ripped from the lonely but gorgeous lounge scenes in the film "Lost in Translation."
The 13th Floor did not always look or feel this way. As our bartender made our cocktails, he talked about the bar's biggest problem before the renovations: Each night there was a different music act (from reggae to blues to a DJ, all in the same week), so the crowd varied wildly from night to night. The music often overpowered the whole scene, stifled conversation and, ultimately, ruined the breathtaking views.
It seems safe to say those issues have been fixed. The renovations leave little doubt what type of place the 13th Floor is now: an elegant lounge meant to impress a date and out-of-towners. It's also one of the few bars in Baltimore that requires "business" or "upscale casual" attire. Jeans are permitted, but not encouraged.
Once the newness of the panoramic view wears off, it will be difficult for the lounge to keep a crowd that doesn't have deep pockets. The 13th Floor is the latest Baltimore bar to join the high-end cocktail wave, and its prices — which fall in line with, say, Rye's in Fells Point — reflect this. But where that bar pushes forward with intriguing ingredients, the 13th Floor mostly serves above-average versions of classics.
The Negroni ($12), made with Plymouth gin, Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth, Campari and blood orange bitters, was a classic standard, with the Campari cutting through the gin, leading to a smooth finish. The Champagne 13 ($10), a 13th Floor original, was addictively sweet, thanks to the infallible combination of Domaine Chandon and St. Germain Elderflower liquer.
The best drink of the night was the Fitzgerald ($13), another original (and not to be confused with the gin sour cocktail invented years ago in New York). Using Woodford Reserve bourbon as an anchor, the bartender added Combier Rouge cherry liquer, Cinzano Sweet vermouth and Peychaud's bitters. But this is a bourbon cocktail through and through, so only order if you can normally drink bourbon on the rocks.
With our first round of cocktails over, we were faced with two options: Order another or change the scenery. We quickly came to unanimous decision — it was time to loosen the tie and head downstairs to the Belvedere's Owl Bar, a place more naturally our speed. The 13th Floor had exceeded our expectations, but once the thrill of being 118 feet above the city was gone, it was simply time to grab a beer somewhere else. (For the record, the 13th Floor has those, too, for $6, but it only offers six types of bottles and no taps.)
After the attractive renovations, the 13th Floor has taken a massive step, or even leap, toward changing its reputation as a sophisticated lounge. But it also seems to exist on an island: Our bartenders told us things have been slow since the rebranding, which made sense. It's hard to imagine many young professionals in Canton, Fells Point or Federal Hill even know the place exists — yet.
This will likely be the lounge's uphill battle. It will take time and word-of-mouth to convince Baltimoreans the new 13th Floor is worth the hassle of dressing up and paying for pricey drinks. But the lounge's owners — Sondra Goad and Bob Persaud — can say they've done their part. It's up to everyone else to come see this view.
The 13th Floor
Back story: After it closed in April for renovations, the 13th Floor reopened last month with hopes of changing its mixed-bag reputation. The lounge originally opened in 1978 as Skyline Cafe.
Where: 1 East Chase St., Mount Vernon
Signature drink: The Fitzgerald ($13) heavily plays to its recipe's strengths, namely Woodford Reserve bourbon.
Parking: Valet parking is offered Wednesday-Saturday for $5 with a validated purchase of $25 from the Owl Bar or 13th Floor. Without validation, valet is $15.
Contact: 410-327-0880, 13floorbelvedere.com
Open: 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Wednesday; 5 p.m.-midnight Thursday; 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday, noon-10 p.m. Sunday.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun