When a bar closes, we rush to assign a reason why. The easiest, or perhaps laziest, answer is to blame the location.
But businesses, good and bad, close for myriad reasons all the time. And in Baltimore's nightlife scene, there is no blueprint to succeed — just owners willing to take a chance on their concepts.
Potential proprietors in search of guidance would be wise to study Robbin Haas, the owner of Hampden's Birroteca, who opened the Nickel Taphouse in Mount Washington in November. The latter fills the large space on Kelly Avenue that last housed Blue Sage before it closed in the middle of last year. Two others, the Falls and Freda's Kitchen, came and went before it.
On a recent Friday night, Haas' latest endeavor — a restaurant-meets-tavern inspired by the working-class bars from the owner's hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. — seemed poised to succeed for the foreseeable future. Judging from the sea of sophisticated but casually dressed patrons lined by the bar for our entire visit, the neighborhood has embraced Nickel Taphouse, too.
Aesthetically, it takes cues from Birroteca. Both operate under low lighting and smartly give their dominating bars just enough space from the slightly more intimate dining areas. The darkness sets a mood that works for date night but more effectively establishes a sense of casual comfort.
Then there's the bar's centerpiece: A 40-foot-long steel candelabrum with 110 candles glowing in it. As we sat at the only two available seats by the bar, my eyes kept returning to the installation above us. I wondered who got stuck with the tedious task of lighting each candle every night, and how long the process took. (Could it be Haas, who designed it?) We checked to see if any candles went out over the course of our visit. (Only two that we noticed.)
While the decor offers plenty to dissect, the real star at Taphouse is the craft beer selection, another hallmark shared with Birroteca. Taphouse offers 32 beers on draft, and the selection is an attractive mix of local and trusted brands.
Salisbury's Evolution Craft Brewing Co. leads the pack with six options, while other Maryland stalwarts such as Union Craft Brewing, Heavy Seas and Flying Dog are represented on tap as well. Leaning local would be welcome enough, but Taphouse goes a step further by including less-obvious, non-Maryland choices, including My Antonia ($11), the sweet imperial pilsner collaboration between Delaware's Dogfish Head and Italy's Birra del Borgo. But as soon as my eye caught the familiar tap design of Debutante Saison ($8), the never-gets-old American farmhouse ale by Stillwater Artisanal Ales and Brewer's Art, my decision was made.
Six specialty cocktails were on the menu, so I ordered a Schiller Park Punch ($12), a bright cocktail made with Tito's Handmade Vodka, St. Germain liqueur, Campari, orange juice and soda. The balance was right — alcohol upfront with the citrus cutting the bite just enough — but I did not want a second. The strong beer selection is too inviting to skip for a $10-$12 cocktail, even if it tastes fine.
The other important aspect Birroteca and Taphouse share is good service. Our bartender frequently checked on us and helped guide others in their selections.
The main, but not dire, issue at Taphouse depends on how you answer this question: How dark is too dark? My eyesight is fine, but I squinted and struggled to read the small type on the menu. A trio of female patrons next to us appeared to use a flashlight app on their iPhones in order to read it, as well. Bars are typically most attractive in low light, but there is such a thing as not-enough light, and Taphouse flirts heavily with it. But once settled in, the bar's charms — from the candelabrum to the beer to the staff — reveal themselves in plain sight. If it lasts, we know why.
The Nickel Taphouse
Back story: This Mount Washington space has had trouble finding a stable winner in recent years, but Birroteca owner Robbin Haas aims to change that with a confident new bar and restaurant inspired by taverns in Buffalo, N.Y. Like Birroteca's bar menu, Taphouse emphasizes local craft beer.
Parking: Street parking, both metered and free, is typically tricky in the neighborhood, but Taphouse offers valet parking from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. everyday for $5.
Signature drink: Taphouse offers six signature cocktails, but beer is the way to go. With 32 taps, a draft makes most sense.
Where: 1604 Kelly Ave., Mount Washington
Contact: 443-869-6240; facebook.com/nickeltaphouse
Open: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday and Sunday; 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday