The crowd inside Pratt Street Ale House on a recent Saturday night was anemic.
It was 1 a.m. and a handful of couples idled at the bar and at the sandy brown high-top tables. Some talked among themselves, others watched a hockey game on ESPN. "Don't Stop Believin'" was on. A half hour later, lights came up, and the bartenders started shooing everyone out.
The scene looked like something out of a brand-new bar on a Tuesday night, not one that's been open for three years, and a place that's doubled as the home for Oliver Breweries for 19. But the same thing happened two nights earlier, also some time past midnight.
The owners would tell you that Pratt Street really comes alive on convention weekends, or when there's a big sporting event a few doors down at Camden Yards or M&T Bank Stadium — or at events such as this weekend's Real Ale Festival. It is under that rationale that they recently spilled over next door, into what used to be The Nest and earlier the Downtown Sports Exchange. But if Pratt Street only comes alive sporadically, it might be best to patronize it sporadically as well.
This is a bar that serves as a glowing billboard for its namesake Oliver Ales, but in addition to a comatose vibe, it is set back by spotty service and lackluster cocktails. And the expanded Pratt Street looks mostly like the old Pratt Street — regular customers will find the new space open only on those days when there's overflow, according to co-owner Justin Dvorkin.
Expansion has been in the minds of the principals at Pratt Street Ale House for a couple of years.
Oliver Breweries, which has been housed at Pratt Street's building since 1993, when it was still called the Wharf Rat, is producing about 3,000 barrels of beer a year, and is on its way to reach capacity. Initially, the owners toyed with the idea of contract brewing at a new brewing venture, Peabody Heights.
They eventually just decided to expand their longtime home and open a brand-new Ale House-branded restaurant in Columbia. They've been renovating the new space, twice as large as the original, for a year, but got the Liquor Board's approval to expand their license just in March.
On both nights I went, Pratt Street's expanded first floor was closed; on a Thursday, some Hopkins students were using it for a private party and on a Saturday it was empty. It is a separate room, disconnected from the main spread.
Upstairs, the two buildings are connected; the owners tore down a connecting wall. But on Thursday night, that new space was darkened. It was around 10:45 p.m. and a weekly comedy show had just ended, with a few of the comics hanging around to talk to fans and friends. Even though there weren't enough people to justify opening up the new space, it was a missed opportunity to show off the new digs.
The rest of Pratt Street is adequate. On the whole, the bar/restaurant is bright and clean-cut. It embraces uncluttered layouts and saves its best real estate for its beer, as it should.
Oliver Ales is one of Baltimore's oldest brew pubs and deserves its pedestal. While the tap system upstairs is not as big as downstairs — 14 vs. 24 — it's still bigger than at most places. And while the selection is mostly Oliver's, it's also saved room for some macros, which is welcome.
A menu consisting strictly of craft, or Oliver Ales, might be intimidating, especially for new beer drinkers. It was unfortunate, however, that on both nights, the 19, a special stout made for Oliver's anniversary, was kicked. It seems odd that a brew pub would run out of its own anniversary beer. Try the well-rounded Irish Red ($5.50) instead, or the Cherry Blossom Seasonal Ale, an evenly sweet wheat beer ($5).
One area where Pratt needs urgent improvement is its cocktails. Their Pratt Street Lemonade is a barfy mixed drink, overly sweet and wholly artificial. It's not made with fresh lemonade but some Pepsi-made equivalent, a bartender told me. And it's eight bucks — that's $8 for a soda over ice cubes and some gin.
Late on Saturday, I had originally asked for the Icepick, a cocktail made with sweet iced tea, but a bartender told me that they were most likely out of iced tea already. In case you're keeping track: That's a cocktail and an anniversary keg they couldn't serve. The bartender didn't make the effort to check the back, which gets to my other gripe. Although my bartender upstairs was observant — he remembered my face on Saturday night — the others were absent-minded.
On my first night, it took a while to get any attention downstairs; one of the bartenders was clearing out for close and the second was counting tips. On Saturday, I had the reluctant tea guy. It didn't help that the staff on both nights seemed eager to close early. On Thursday, the upstairs bar was closed before 11 p.m., and on Saturday, I was hardly finished with my second drink before they were already ushering everyone out the door.
Though Pratt Street is a worthy destination for fans of Oliver's, on Saturday, it mainly looked old, like a tired conventioneer who'd spent all day flitting between workshops and panels and just wanted to get a good night's sleep.
Pratt Street Ale House
Back story: Oliver Breweries moved into the old P.J. Cricketts in 1993, and turned into the Wharf Rat. The place was renamed and remade as Pratt Street Ale House in 2009. A year ago, they spilled over next door into what used to be called the Nest and got their liquor license expanded in March.
Parking: Metered street parking is available.
Signature drink: Try the Cherry Blossom Seasonal Ale ($5). The bar has 24 draft lines downstairs, 14 upstairs. There are also cocktails, like the Pratt Street Lemonade $8).
Where: 206 W. Pratt St.
Contact: 410-244-8900; prattstreetalehouse.com
Open: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily