Is there any bar or nightclub in Baltimore worth a $20 cover charge?
If so — and I'm not convinced there is — it certainly was not Paparazzi Nightclub on a recent Friday night. The dance club that replaced the concert venue Sonar in February describes itself on its website as "one of the top destinations to visit in Baltimore nightlife." It was only a destination if someone were in search of a test of patience.
Paparazzi is split into two rooms, just like Sonar. On this night, the smaller area held a "Ladies Night" hosted by 92Q's Konan. The larger room, which had attracted a line of approximately 50 people at 11 p.m., was also hosting a "Ladies Night." (I later learned it was rented out by a local promoter, a common occurrence at Paparazzi. Ownership says it hopes to stop this practice soon.) The crowd outside indicated the more enticing party was in the larger room. Since both were open to the public, I followed the crowd.
There were at least five police officers and a number of Paparazzi security guards directing patrons to form a single line. Two men, clearly friendly with Paparazzi staff, boasted loudly about a cut-line. If you paid them $10, you could forgo the line, which wasn't moving at all. I had heard the cover was $10 for men (every Friday is Ladies Night at Paparazzi, which means women get in free before 11 p.m., but they still had to pay the cut-line fee to speed up the process), so I passed on the cut-line.
That was a mistake. After 40 minutes of waiting in line and watching group after group speed by like they had a Flash Pass at Six Flags America, it was finally my turn to see "Baltimore's Newest Upscale Hotspot," as the Ladies Night flier read.
But first, security told me to ditch my carabiner, a small metal loop that held my car and house keys. The two employees did not tell me why it was not permitted, but perhaps they were concerned about potential eye-gouging on the dance floor. It seemed like a ridiculous request — there was no pepper spray or Swiss Army knife — but I threw it away. "They're only $2," a female security guard said. To make matters worse, I saw a patron with a carabiner on his pants directly in front of me, already past security.
Then came the ultimate insult: The woman at the door said the cover was $20. So the choices were skip the line and pay a total of $30 or wait 40 minutes to pay $20. The smart decision would have been to turn around and go home, but the unmistakable sounds of Young Jeezy's gravelly bark and the booming bounce from the Roland TR-808 drum hits momentarily quelled the irritation.
The island bar in the middle of the dance floor did not help Paparazzi's case. A gin and tonic was $7, and a bottle of Budweiser was $4. When asked for a Bud Light, the bartender pulled out a Bud Ice. When the request was repeated, the woman rolled her eyes and went searching for Bud Light, which is one of those generic beers all bars should have available. Instead, she shrugged her shoulders and pulled out a Budweiser. She took my $5 and automatically assumed the extra $1 was hers. It was, regardless of the rudimentary service, but bartenders should always give customers the option of leaving the tip themselves.
Almost everything about this experience was terrible. The exception was the pure joy and release found on the jam-packed Paparazzi dance floor. Like Voltage Nightclub, Paparazzi admits patrons who are 18 and older, which explained why the bartenders didn't seem particularly busy, and most likely why so much money is required up front. The kids came to get lost in the type of swag-heavy rap that sounds best after a long, trying week: Chief Keef, 2 Chainz, Lil Wayne, Travis Porter and Gucci Mane all blared through Paparazzi's excellent sound system.
It was time to forget about bills, school, relationships and any other sobering responsibilities. (Not to mention the wave of shootings that occurred in the city that weekend.) For these fans, the escape is found in rapping along to heroes from the hood. And these weren't casual rap listeners - they were hip-hop fanatics, young men and women who recited every word to an obscure Yo Gotti remix.
Is that experience worth a 40-minute wait in line, a ridiculous cover charge and overpriced drinks? Judging from the smiles on their faces and the dances being performed in circles, they didn't seem to mind as much as I did. As I left, a long line remained outside and the cries of "$10 cut-line!" could still be heard, cementing the fact that these patrons deserved better.
Back story: The former Sonar concert venue is now a weekend nightclub. Every Friday is Ladies Night, and private parties are also hosted. The owner hopes to start booking cover bands in the near future, but as of now, it's a hip-hop DJ-based location. On Mondays, there is live jazz from 8 p.m.-midnight.
Parking: The lot next door costs $5.
Signature drink: A gin and tonic is $7, while a Budweiser costs $4. There are no taps.
Where: 407 E. Saratoga St., downtown
Contact: 443-904-9738, thepaparazzinightclub.com
Open: 9 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday; 4 p.m.-midnight Sunday