Warmth emanates from every corner of the bar: the improvised electric bass groove from the jazz quartet; the patrons' hearty laughs; the glowing orange sign above the bar, proudly announcing the arrival of one of the city's most promising new bars — Phaze 10.
To call this new restaurant, bar and lounge on the western edge of Mount Vernon a pleasant surprise would be an understatement. Driving up North Howard Street, along the tracks of the light rail, there wasn't much to gaze upon: some vacant buildings, an antiques store, Maryland General Hospital.
I had my hopes — the double allure of Southern barbecue and live jazz was enough — but they remained measured. If Phaze 10 were to impress, it would have to do so on a block without much bustle.
After stepping into the bar on a recent Friday night, it was clear Phaze 10 wouldn't need the assistance. The larger-than-expected building was full of diners and jazz fans, all engaged in conversations with each other and the inviting staff. Out of the three flat-screen televisions in the bar area, two were off and one, furthest away from the band, had Olympic swimming on mute. No one looked at it.
The downstairs bar is long and narrow, with a sizable section carved out for the band — a regular occurrence of rotating musicians, poets and open-mike enthusiasts on weekends — close to the street. On this particular night, there were about 35 people in the bar, some eating and others laughing with new and old friends.
At that moment, I wished I had brought more friends along to show them that Baltimore's nightlife was more than shoulder-to-shoulder sloppiness and the same old sports bars. If you know where to look, it can be blissfully relaxed and elegant, without feeling boring.
It helps when the drinks are made well, too. Phaze 10's nine "Signature Drinks" take familiar cocktails and add slight twists. The Howard Street Tea ($12) is the bar's version of a Long Island iced tea, with rail brands of vodka, gin, rum, and tequila mixed with peach schnapps, pineapple juice, Sprite and a splash of Grand Marnier. For all of that liquor, the drink was a smooth blend.
The Phaze 10 ($12) was made with coconut Ciroc vodka, sour mix, Captain Morgan spiced rum, Blue Curacao, Midori melon liqueur, pineapple juice and a shot of Bacardi 151. The sweetness (and 151) aren't to everyone's taste, but I heard two young women raving about it, saying they could drink it all night.
There were only six beers on tap, and the selection begged for more discerning choices. There's simply not much to say when the only drafts are Guinness, Budweiser, Blue Moon, Killian's Irish Red, Yuengling and Coors Light. But there's one way to redeem a paltry tap list, and Phaze 10 knows it: Serve the beer in 32-ounce frosted mugs. Our lovely bartender — who was helpful, patient and never pushy — served a tall Yuengling, and to my surprise, only asked for $4 in return.
Phaze 10's decor feels immediately comfortable, with dark woods and low lighting. A wide staircase leads to a separate lounge area with couches and another cocktail bar. The common theme, whether upstairs or downstairs, was the sense of a welcoming community.
Throughout the night, my friends and I struck up multiple conversations with strangers. For most, it wasn't their first time at Phaze 10, a great sign that the bar, which opened in late June, was attracting repeat customers.
Before leaving, we made sure to see the band, a four-piece consisting of a keyboardist, bassist, drummer and saxophonist. The drummer and bass met in the musical middle, establishing a sturdy backdrop with just enough swing to it.
The keyboardist found the rhythm, and then it was time for the star, a saxophonist in a Ravens hat, to take control. As he gently riffed and eventually picked up steam, the palpable glow from the bar seemed to fill the rest of Phaze 10, from the dining room to the upstairs to the patrons inside. It was a scene this overlooked area of Baltimore deserved, and one that should stick around for a long time.
Back story: Opened in late June, Phaze 10 serves Southern soul food and barbecue, and also emphasizes live performances, including jazz, spoken word and comedians. The location doesn't scream "hot spot," but Phaze 10's many qualities make it a destination worth visiting.
Parking: Street parking is free after 6 p.m. Valet parking is available for $6. Maryland General Hospital's Eutaw Street garage is also an option.
Signature drink: The Phaze 10 ($12) is the namesake, but the Howard Street Tea ($12) was the cocktail worth ordering again. It's a Long Island iced tea with Sprite and Grand Marnier, and it packs enough of a punch to validate the hefty price.
Where: 885 N. Howard St., Mount Vernon
Contact: 410-462-2010, phaze10.com
Open: 4 p.m.-midnight, Wednesday and Thursday. 4 p.m.-2 a.m., Friday and Saturday.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun