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Entertainment Music & Nightlife Midnight Sun

Maryland bars find inspiration from the speakeasy era

In mid-January, Jim Burger took a routine stroll around his neighborhood, Remington. The freelance photographer walked along the same streets and passed the same buildings he normally does.

Then, out of the corner of his eye, Burger watched someone walk into a building he had long considered vacant. He knew of the corner rowhouse for its previous failures as bars: Joe's Tavern, Molly's Public House and, most recently, the Kitty Kat Bar. Curious, he followed.

Without a sign outside, Burger had no idea he had entered WC Harlan, a wonderfully quaint, dimly lit bar that seemed plucked from the Prohibition era. From the black-and-white photos on the wall to the crank-to-open cash register, every well-placed detail helped transport him to a forgotten time. To Burger, he had stumbled upon his new favorite bar.

"I've never seen anything like it in Baltimore, Maryland," Burger said. "If there was anything like that there, it was before I was born."

His only complaint?

"I just wish there were more of them," he said.

While WC Harlan has dominated the city's nightlife conversation this year, it is not the first, or last, bar to take inspiration from the speakeasy era of the 1920s. In 2013, that can mean a lot of things. For WC Harlan, it means not advertising, not having an online presence and not having a sign outside. For others, it can mean vintage furnishings and taking extra care with cocktails.

(Talk to enough people in the know around here and they will say there are true speakeasies — as in the kind illegally serving alcohol without the necessary licenses — operating today. None were willing to talk on the record about them.)

Either way, it's clear not every bar in Baltimore aspires to be the most crowded. In fact, some prefer operating under the radar.

E-Villa, which opened in September 2011, is a Mid-town Belvedere lounge that attracts electronic dance music DJs. (Last August, Baauer, source of the "Harlem Shake" phenomenon, performed at E-Villa.) But you'd never know it from the outside. The only indication there's music inside is a pair of easy-to-miss "EV's" printed on the door. Even after walking in, patrons must ascend a flight of non-descript stairs before entering the surprisingly attractive lounge.

Co-owner Harold Edwards says that, based on its outside appearance, most people don't know there's an EDM lounge inside the building. He says maintaining E-Villa's mystique is imperative.

"It's just making sure it's the in-crowd or the people that look for a certain vibe," Edwards said of the 125-person capacity lounge. "It's not for everybody."

Even if patrons aren't thinking of the history of Prohibition, Edwards says the era's influence is palpable.

"It's just so different because it has that speakeasy feel," he said. "It seems like people can feel something, like they know it used to be a [unique] place."

Baltimore's most famous speakeasy is now the Owl Bar at the Belvedere Hotel. It opened in 1903 (simply as the Bar at the Belvedere), and operated through Prohibition.

The decorative owls, which can still be seen overlooking the bar today, would inform patrons — through winking eyes — when it was OK to imbibe without the fear of getting arrested, according to Averil Christens-Barry, marketing manager for the Belvedere Restaurant Group. She says the Owl Bar is selective in its press opportunities because its owners and management still cherish its speakeasy ethos.

"We like that we're tucked back [in the building]. That's why it worked as a speakeasy back in the day," Christens-Barry said. "There's that intrigue in it. People know about the Owl Bar but we try not to be on the cover of every newspaper all the time. It's a little gem within the Belvedere."

The trend of secretive, speakeasy-inspired bars has been more noticeable in larger cities such as New York and Washington. With WC Harlan (whose co-owner Lane Harlan declined to comment for this article) and other haunts such as All Stars Sports Bar's Club A&S, Baltimore looks to be catching up to its more prominent neighbors. Even Annapolis, a city not known for its envelope-pushing bar scene, is hopping on the trend.

Brian Bolter, who co-owns the capital's Red Red Wine Bar, plans to open his second Annapolis bar this summer. It's called Dry 85, which is a historical nod to the Sheppard Bone-Dry Act, which prohibited D.C. residents from drinking and purchasing alcohol 85 days after Prohibition ended.

Bolter says he came up with the concept after imagining what a speakeasy would look like if Prohibition were still in effect today. Dry 85 will be a "step up from pubs" and will focus on artisanal cocktails, which Bolter says will fill a void in Annapolis.

"I just love to see restaurateurs and bar owners use creativity to generate a unique customer experience as opposed to just another sports bar on the corner," Bolter said. "We have enough Greene Turtles."

But don't expect Dry 85 to operate completely in the shadows like some speakeasy-inspired bars. Bolter likes the "off-the-beaten-path mentality" of those places, but finds some of their practices impractical. He doesn't forget that Dry 85 is as much a business venture as it is an attempt to bring something fresh to Annapolis.

"I think in this economy, it's hard enough to eke out a living and run a business," he said. "To make it harder on the consumer to enjoy your product may sound quaint and exclusive, but I also wonder if it makes much business sense."

Time will tell if Bolter's bet on an "upscale pub" will work in Annapolis, but patrons like Burger appreciate the aspiration to fill a void. Burger, who immediately likes a bar when it lacks a TV, echoes Bolter's sentiment, applying it to the mega-sports-bar culture found in Baltimore. He hopes the city's nightlife scene will continue down this less-traveled path, and has no issues with how a bar chooses to market — or not market — itself.

"I love word of mouth," Burger said. "It adds to the mystique. You have to get off your ass and go find it. That should be a lesson to some of these other bars: It's OK to dial it down a few notches."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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