It's an ongoing debate among Baltimoreans: Are the best bars in Canton off O'Donnell Square?
If you've been to the Irish pubs or sports bars around there even once, you know what you're in for — a night that's not always pretty but comforting in its predictability. There's the familiar aroma of too many people, the flowing Red Bulls and the awkward grinding. Want to have a conversation without straining your voice? Good luck.
But hang around Canton long enough and the truth quickly emerges: The corner bars away from the Square lack the crowds but make up for it with personality and character.
A fine addition to Canton's less-visited bars is Cardinal Tavern, an unassuming spot on the corner of South Clinton and Hudson streets. Opened late last winter, Cardinal Tavern is the quintessential, unpretentious neighborhood bar Canton desperately needed, and I should know — I live a handful of blocks away.
Cardinal Tavern seems allergic to flashiness: no kitchen (at least for now), no DJ booth and no gimmicks. Walk in and the first thing you notice is its size: It's long and narrow, with an upstairs only accessible to employees. There are some tables beyond the bar, but this is a place to pull up a seat and get comfortable.
Then comes the star: Cardinal Tavern's wide array of liquor bottles. For such a tiny spot, its impressive selection of top-shelf bottles, rail booze and everything in-between dominates almost the entire right wall. If you have a favorite drink, chances are the Cardinal's friendly bartenders can make it. If you're looking to expand your liquor palate without having Flo Rida blasted in your ear, then you're in luck, too.
There's only one thing to do here: Grab a seat, order a drink and relax. On a recent Saturday night, two friends and I did just that, as the other 40 or so diverse patrons chit-chatted, watched the NHL playoffs and air-drummed to the Who's "Baba O'Riley."
I ordered a Captain Morgan and Coke while a friend chose Tanqueray and tonic (both $7). Unlike many of the mixed drinks at the Square, these came in pint glasses, so the price seemed right. Having tasted both, they were well-balanced — thankfully not-too-sweet and with just enough punch.
Another friend eyed the beers on draft, which seemed puny compared to the Great Wall of Spirits. With only eight taps, it's imperative for bar owners to be discerning in their selections.
Cardinal Tavern makes a decent attempt to satisfy a wide range of customers, with safe-but-true stalwarts Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA, New Belgium Brewing's Fat Tire, Heavy Seas Loose Cannon and the usual requirements (Guinness, Blue Moon, National Bohemian). My friend settled on Dale's Pale Ale ($4), the simple but delicious brew from Colorado.
It was after 11 p.m. and the crowd seemed content on spending its night there, not as if Cardinal Tavern was merely the pre-game before the Square. This is a bar where customers quickly become regulars, and where conversation (even with the bartenders) and rock 'n' roll matter more than the game (although the four flat-screens would satisfy any fan).
The decor is minimal, with framed photos of cult heroes lining the walls — a fallen Morrissey hangs above the women's bathroom, old Orioles not named Cal face the liquor and a Layne Staley memorial poster pays tribute to the Alice in Chains lead singer.
The connotation of a dive bar says "dingy, dirty and old," even in the most charming forms. To call Cardinal Tavern a "dive" would be a misnomer: Its modest-yet-sleek wooden design, large flat-screen TVs and excellent liquor selection make it more than a dive. It's the corner bar every Baltimore neighborhood would be lucky to have.
Back story: Only a few blocks from O'Donnell Square, Cardinal Tavern, which opened in late 2011, feels like the antithesis of Canton's party scene. It's a comfortable corner bar whose Facebook description — "everyone is made to feel welcome" — felt true on a recent Saturday night.
Parking: Street parking, which will be difficult to find the later you go.
Signature drink: The vast liquor selection leaves this wide open. Like many Baltimore bars, they're making crushes with fresh fruit.
Where: 901 S. Clinton St., Canton
Open: 4 p.m.-2 a.m., Monday-Friday. Noon-2 a.m., Saturday and Sunday.