On Sunday night, Looney's Pub was surprisingly low-key. You kind of always expect a Looney's, which has had a flagship home in O'Donnell Square for over a decade, to be packed with young, screaming sports fans, beer mugs flying across the room, the music turned up so loud you can barely make out the lyrics.
But I was at the new Looney's in College Park, the latest bar in the company's growing stable, which now includes locations in Bel Air and Maple Lawn.
The crowd at the bar, which opened in October, wasn't swaying woozily, but intently watching the Giants put up what seemed like a losing fight against the Cowboys. The game was so tense that if there hadn't been what seemed like 20,000 TVs all tuned in to it, you might have thought the quiet audience was watching "60 Minutes."
And then, improbably, the Giants won, and the bar started looking more like the Looney's we all know. Everyone applauded, people drummed on the tables, the bartenders screamed euphoric yelps of victory.
Like in Canton, a football game — any major sporting event, really — is the best time to visit a Looney's. The brand doesn't have any distinguishing characteristics, and this branch was no different — inside it looks just like a Greene Turtle or a Tilted Kilt.
But its young clientele makes it a safe bet for college students, recent grads and people in their 20s who aren't quite ready to graduate to the grown-up bars.
Looney's in Canton opened in 1993, and co-owners Bill Larney and Steve Litrenta have been gradually building up the brand over the years with new locations and expansions; the Bel Air location expanded by 5,000 square feet four years ago.
This new Looney's, which has been in the works for the past two years, makes a lot of sense for Larney and Litrenta. Yes, it brings the bar to its target audience, but it also shows the owners understand the economy. The food and service industries generally haven't seen significant growth in the past several years because of the recession.
But at the research and consulting firm Technomic, trend-watchers are seeing that small chains — like the Greene Turtle, the Tilted Kilt and burger joint Five Guys — are flourishing, which suggests that modest budgets and savvy locations deliver results.
For the new Looney's, the owners picked a spot with a ready audience — the first floor of the massive The Varsity housing complex in College Park, which is a short walk away from the main campus. Even if it was far from the school, the building's residents alone would keep the bar busy, if only out of convenience. You know how lazy college students can be.
What you'll find at College Park sticks to the formula that has worked well in Canton and Bel Air: More is more. The bar is enormous, and its high ceilings make it look roomier. There's even enough space for a stage — the bar has live music almost daily.
It also has more flat-screen TVs than a small Third World nation; they're all over the place, taking up wall space like beer ads. I didn't count them all — but there must be at least as many as the 95 the Bel Air Looney's has. From my seat at the bar, I could keep track of the Giants game, the Heisman Trophy ceremony and a Tim Tebow news conference after the Broncos' OT win over the Bears.
There's also lots of beer — 18 drafts, two of which are rotated weekly — of the craft (Flying Dog, New Belgium) and macro variety at reasonable prices; my Dogfish Head was $5.
Unlike most college bars, Looney's College Park is exceptionally clean-cut. This is a good and a bad trait. I'm certainly not going to object to a bar that is as organized as this one, that still hasn't lost that new-bar smell. The staff are also attentive and neatly dressed.
But it also looks hopelessly corporate, indistinguishable from any number of other sports bars. The only things that might have set it apart from other sports bars are the Terps logos emblazoned on the bar counter.
If you're looking for something with the personality of a Charles Village Pub, you won't find it here. It is not worth the drive from Baltimore, but it is a reliable hangout for College Park. And in this town, where the nightlife options are scarce, even that is good news.
If you go
Back story: Looney's opened in 1993 in Canton, and has been growing steadily since then; a Bel-Air location with 95 flat-screen TVs opened in 2002. Looney's College Park was the latest to open, in October, on the first floor of The Varsity housing complex.
Parking: Available at The Varsity's metered parking lot.
Signature drink: Try any of the craft beers, which include Sierra Nevada, New Belgium (Fat Tire), Flying Dog and Dogfish Head.
Where: 8150 Baltimore Ave., College Park
Contact: 240-542-4510; looneyspubmd.com/college_park.html
Open: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-3 a.m. Friday-Saturday; kitchen typically closes at 1 a.m.
Price range: Looney's has an expansive dinner menu that ranges in price from $2.59 (small fries) to $19.99 (New York strip steak). Beers all cost around $5, with domestics sold for $2 and craft beers for $3 during happy hour (2 p.m.-7 p.m.). The bar has lots of other drink specials after 9 p.m.