Don't ask for a drink menu at the Waterfront Hotel in Fells Point; the popular hangout doesn't have one. The bartender will merely point to the assortment of canned beers on the wall, a ho-hum selection of been-there, done-that domestics and imports.
It doesn't matter. The only list that counts at the Waterfront (which, by the way, isn't actually a hotel) is written in chalk on the bar's wall: It's a rundown of the artists scheduled to perform on the bar's typically crowded downstairs floor.
The Waterfront Hotel's greatest draw is its stable of rotating live performers — pop cover bands, sensitive singer-songwriter types and everything in between. It explains why the Waterfront has had no problems drawing a huge crowd whenever I've stopped in on weekend nights.
Even at about 10:30 p.m. on a recent Monday, when other bars on Thames Street were either closed or slow, the Waterfront drew a crowd of about 25 for Industry Night, which attracts other bartenders, waitresses and bar managers with half-price drinks. As Frankie G. sang the "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" theme song while strumming an acoustic guitar, I recognized some Canton bartenders happily taking advantage of the specials.
Last year, Waterfront went through major changes. There was new management, a new executive chef (Stephen Carey), a revamped menu and, most important, a renovated downstairs bar.
The upstairs lounge, as comfortable and laid-back as it gets in Fells Point, was also remodeled earlier this year. Only open on weekends, the upstairs remains a nice place to enjoy the excellent brunch menu.
The bar never had a problem filling seats with diners (the food is very good, across the board) but the large booths always got in the way when Waterfront tried to transform from restraurant to bar at night.
The sleek, stripped-down redesign was smartly planned and well-executed. The booths have been replaced with movable tables and chairs, offering enough room to pack in a crowd seeking a live-band fix. This new open space allows Waterfront to compete against other Fells Point bars offering bands every night, such as Cat's Eye Pub. Waterfront offers the best deal, too, by never charging a cover.
As a bar, Waterfront doesn't stand out. I settled on a Dale's Pale Ale draft ($5.96) while a friend chose the increasingly popular Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy ($5.04; Waterfront seems to want patrons left with pockets full of change). It's safe to say beer enthusiasts accustomed to Max's Taphouse will be disappointed by the tap selection (there are eight, the most exotic being the Philadelphia-brewed Yards India Pale Ale).
Waterfront's bare-bones approach to beer applies to its cocktails as well. On Monday night, I didn't see anyone with a mixed drink — just beer and wine. Those looking for well-crafted cocktails will have better luck at Rye down the street.
But on any given weekend night, Waterfront will be packed with young professionals clutching Bud Lights and ordering shots of Fireball whiskey. They're there for the scene and little else.
Post-renovation, the Waterfront Hotel seems aware of its strengths: excellent food and a space large enough to make a local cover band momentarily pass for the real thing (this, of course, could depend on the number of Cherry Bombs one has consumed). It also helps that the bartenders are warm and can sling drinks pretty quickly, even on swamped weekends.
Waterfront Hotel is one of Thames Street's most consistent bars, but for it to become one of the best, it must consider renovating the unimaginative drinks list. And why not? A little change has worked for the interior and the food.
Back story: More than a year after its renovations (both managerial and inside the bar), Waterfront Hotel has become one of the most popular spots to grab a beer and see live music in Fells Point. It's time for the beer and liquor selection to catch up with the bar's other offerings.
Parking: It's Fells Point, so it can be a headache unless you're willing to hunt down a street spot or admit defeat and pay at a garage or meter.
Signature drink: I'd recommend a Dale's Pale Ale draft ($5.96), the crisp, hoppy brew from Colorado. The flavorful pint pairs well with food without ever feeling too heavy.
Where: 1710 Thames St., Baltimore
Contact: 410-537-5055 or waterfronthotel.us
Open: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Friday. 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.