On a recent Friday night, the downstairs of Wiley Gunter's was dead. There were a dozen people in seats, quietly conversing and staring at ESPN.
The bartender moved slowly, as the scene didn't require much more. Taking too much time but also apologizing for it, he eventually noticed two first-timers in need of a beer.
As I took my first sip of a Heavy Seas Loose Cannon draft ($5.50), I wondered if it was too early for a large crowd (it was only 8 p.m.) or if this was a typical night at Wiley Gunter's, the former Sly Fox Pub on Fort Avenue in Locust Point, which opened in May.
Either way, there wasn't an obvious reason to come back unless, maybe, you lived near Fort McHenry or if you were a Sly Fox regular. Refurbished in the spring, the new bar has multiple flat-screen TVs and 10 standard beers on draft, all fine amenities but nothing you couldn't find in many other Baltimore bars. (To be fair, the bar impressively offers more than 70 bottled beers, with more to come.)
The location — next to a shopping center with a grocery store and fast-food joint — also isn't ideal. It's a decent hike from the neighborhood's crowded hotspots, so the chance of tipsy spillover traffic is minimal. Even residents looking to avoid the madness of Cross Street could find more inviting, off-the-path options than Wiley Gunter's.
If the bar only had a downstairs, it'd be one of the year's more forgettable re-boots with the most awkward name. But walk up the winding, metal stairs — adorned with stickers like a punk-rock hallway — to the left of the entrance, and Wiley Gunter's immediately becomes more interesting. It actually has possibilities.
If downstairs was drab, then upstairs felt like a buzzing pre-game in a hooked-up basement. Beer pong was in session. Customers chatted with a friendlier bartender. While we jumped on the dartboards, a wholesome 20-something originally from Chicago asked to join.
As we sipped beers and played Cutthroat Cricket (we only had three), I wished I had opened my tab upstairs rather than below.
At one point, our smiling bartender left the bar to check on our drinks but to also watch our amateurish attempts to hit bullseyes. That detail may sound insignificant, but it's an example of the type of service new customers remember and a key to possibly converting them into regulars.
Compared to the ground floor, Wiley Gunter's upstairs has a smaller, more pedestrian selection of drafts (with only five taps, is it necessary for two to be Miller Lite and Coors Light?) and fewer liquor bottles. Fewer TVs and seating options, too.
It didn't matter — the clear reason to come to Wiley Gunter's lies upstairs, where there's tape on the floor for darts, a large beer pong area and even a foosball table.
It will be worth keeping an eye on Wiley Gunter's in the coming months. Following in the tradition of the Sly Fox Pub, it's one of the only Baltimore sports bars catering to fans of the Virginia Tech Hokies and Washington Redskins (a man downstairs was talking about the Redskins' offense while wearing a team T-shirt).
With football season around the corner, there's potential for Wiley Gunter's to become the go-to destination for a surprisingly sizable contingent of local sports fans. They just have to remember to head upstairs.
Back story: Formerly the Sly Fox Pub, Wiley Gunter's reopened in mid-May after renovating the interior and adding a new bar upstairs. It remains a sports bar for Washington Redskins and Virginia Tech fans.
Parking: Avoid the temptation to park in the shopping center lot next door. Instead, park a few blocks away on the street and walk.
Signature drink: As is too often the case for "sports" bars, the beer and liquor selection leaves something to be desired. With limited options, I tend to stay local, so the Heavy Seas Loose Cannon ($5.50) is fail-proof. On Tuesdays, Long Island Iced Teas are on special for $4.
Where: 823 E. Fort Ave., Locust Point
Open: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Friday. 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun