It's a little after 11 p.m. on a recent Saturday night at the Crown, a small Station North bar and live entertainment venue that opened in June.
"People Just Love to Play with Words," a terrific Men at Work song from 1981, plays over the sound system as a young, diverse crowd of roughly 45 mingles with cocktails and cheap cans of beer in hand. Against the striking red walls are leather couches, where friends are cuddled up and make-out sessions may or may not happen later. For a second, the dingy room feels like it could use a renovation — until you realize that would probably ruin it.
Not long after, Chase O'Hara, currently of the Baltimore duo Chiffon, takes center stage as Winks, and begins playing sensually slinky R&B on a keyboard. His singing, slightly obscured by a talkbox, recalls Mike Posner doing his best impression of The-Dream. The songs feel more like snippets, but O'Hara wins the crowd's attention with his knack for supple melodies.
In that moment, as O'Hara's lush synthesizers washed over us, the Crown — with its modest size, friendly staff, reasonable $5 cover charge and inclusive vibe — already felt like a vital addition to the neighborhood.
When asked if the Crown was more music venue or bar, general manager Brendan Sullivan (who also plays in the Baltimore band Weekends) chose option C: A lounge. It's important to Sullivan that the Crown not be pigeonholed as any one thing. So it does a little bit of everything, most often in a smart way.
For one, the entertainment goes beyond music. Besides booking experimental pop, indie-rock and R&B acts (which extends beyond Baltimore; the Raleigh, N.C., quartet Lonnie Walker took the stage after Winks), there's a concerted effort to bring variety to the Crown, including Game Night (where patrons can play Nintendo 64 on a big-screen projector), a once-per-month stand-up comedy show, short fiction readings and film screenings. As an arts district, Station North fosters many disciplines, and rightfully, the Crown reflects it.
Even so, strip the Crown of its entertainment and you're left with a bar that charms with its attitude. There's often a cocktail on special for $4; if the price doesn't grab your attention, the name likely will. On my trip, it was Bozo's Nose, a mixture of whiskey, grenadine, cherry and lemon basil syrup. Other times it's been the Super Moon (gin, Korean chilled yogurt, triple sec, lime juice and an orange slice) or the Big Booty Cat (light and dark rums, sour mix, pineapple juice and a grenadine floater).
The beer selection, which did not include anything on tap, was lackluster, but decent enough. There were prerequisites (cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and National Bohemian), locals (Flying Dog bottles) and standards. After ordering a Heineken, I received a Miller High Life ($3.50). My bartender handed it off with a smile, but forgot to ask for money, perhaps assuming I already had a tab open. Those two slip-ups would have felt more substantial had other bartenders not been so attentive. But overall, the staff was quick to make sure I wasn't waiting to have my order taken, making it easier to forgive previous mistakes.
Best of all were the snowballs, offered in two versions: Virgin ($2) and Boozy ($4, and includes a shot of the rail liquor of your choice). The syrups, all made in-house, ranged from the African fruit tamarind to roasted red pepper. After narrowing my choices to cranberry and basil lemonade, I took a second bartender's suggestion and selected the latter. It was a refreshing choice for a hot summer night, and the basil held reign nicely over the lemon, making it feel like a true treat for an adult.
Since June, Station North has welcomed a new one-two punch combination. Steve Carson — the co-owner of Beatnik, another new, and excellent, Station North bar — said he envisioned his space as a hangout for crowds leaving shows in the neighborhood. If that's the case, then it's hard to imagine a better starting point for a night than at the Crown.
Back story: Formerly the Korean karaoke bar and eatery New Seoul Restaurant, the Crown quietly opened in mid-June in Station North's Hyundai Plaza building. It hosts a wide variety of bands, theme nights and other forms of entertainment. All events are 18+.
Parking: Free and metered on the street
Signature drink: The Crown often has a $4 cocktail on special and reasonably priced beers. The trick up its sleeve is a $4 alcoholic snowball. The basil lemonade version was refreshing; better yet, it was a taste of Baltimore.
Where: 1910 N. Charles St. (second floor), Station North
Open: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. daily