A tour of some of the best bars for affordable booze and priceless conversation
By Casey Embert
Jan 18, 2017 | 3:00 AM
In search of a more adventurous night out in Baltimore, I skipped my usual weekend dance parties in favor of Baltimore's storied neighborhood bars. Over a whirlwind of a week, I dragged along a few friends to visit a bunch of Baltimore's dive bars, corner joints, and neighborhood watering holes. By the end, I lost my voice, forgot where I parked my car for a few hours one night, and sacrificed my dignity as I dared our Uber driver to "do Tokyo drift" on the way to the next bar (he didn't). What I gained was immeasurable—a belly full of cheap booze, unforgettable stories, and a newfound love for Baltimore's booze scene separate from more, much-publicized drinking holes.
Butts and Betty's Tavern on the corner of Gough Street and S. Collington Avenue, my first stop, set the tone for the adventure and quickly established how these Baltimore bars function within their own set of rules. Warmly lit by the soft glow of red, blue, and purple neon signage, Butts and Betty's used to be a 20-hour drinking operation, opening its doors at 6 a.m. and not closing until 2 a.m. Its hours recent changed so it doesn't open until 11 a.m., but when I visited the bar around 9 p.m. on New Year's Day, it had yet to close from New Year's Eve. Rogue partying seemed like the right way to ring in what will be a dicey 2017.
Opening taverns at 6 a.m. seemed like the best way to accommodate the early 20th century workers in a busy port city like Baltimore and many bars still have the proper liquor license to operate during these early hours. Whether they use these extended hours is up to them, but Sherry's On Broadway in Fells Point still does and when I visited on New Year's Day around midnight, it was still open from New Year's Eve as well. Many a night I have lamented how Baltimore seems to go to bed so early, but unbeknownst to me, there are neighborhood bars playing host to early bird party crews throughout the city.
Mostly, this was a bar tour for cheap booze and nothing more, and it delivered bargain price points: 12-ounce cans of Natty Boh cost $2 in most places while some happy hour prices sold customers a Boh for even cheaper than that. Venice Tavern off Conkling Street in Highlandtown is considered the Craft Beer Underground and sells $3 pints of craft beer. It also offers a pretty decent Old Fashioned for only $4.50. But my favorite surprise was $4 shots of Jameson at Southside Saloon off Fort Avenue in Riverside. Shots like this set you back at least $6 to $8 elsewhere in Baltimore.
While these bars are often praised for their no-frills atmosphere and typically have no cocktail menu in sight, they do offer their own take on drink curation. Mums, off of Hanover Street in Federal Hill, is famous for its #1 Special—a can of Boh and a shot of Evil for $6. Evil, which smells like nutmeg and cinnamon and tastes like Christmas, is a sweet, house-made honey liquor inspired by Lithuania's Vyritos. When I inquired about the base alcohol of Evil, the bartender replied a completely deadpan, "grain," so we knew we were in for quite a night. I asked her if there was a #2 Special and she replied, "We don't count that high."
Spirits Tavern on the corner of Bank Street and S. Wolfe Street in Upper Fells Point likes to have a little fun with its cheap beer. We played the "Tub O' Fun" game in which we each chose a cheap beer from an extensive chalkboard list on the wall offering everything from Schlitz to Keystone. If the bartender randomly pulled it out of the bottom of the cooler, we'd win a free shot to go with it. One of my friends nailed it and the rest of us chugged our cold beers while he basked in his great success.
And cheap beer turned out to be more like a bonus, especially after chatting up bartenders and the regulars hanging out. The bartenders we met—many of them in their 60s and older— weren't too busy shaking up complicated cocktails or managing rowdy crowds to strike up a conversation. Many of them have worked in these bars for decades—because they or their families own them—and are eager to share their stories.
Most notable was the bartender at Roman's Place, an old Prohibition-era bar in a rowhouse off S. Decker Avenue in Highlandtown. Her family is the second family to own the bar. When she's not bartending at her father's bar, she wrestles—like WWE-style, leap off the top rope, slam people with folding chairs type wrestling. She also manages wrestlers and even shared a flier for her next event out in Parkville.
Because many of them have been around since the early 1900s, these Baltimore bars have a rich history and the bartenders have stories to share for days. Roman's Place has a side entrance, which was the only entrance women could use during the Prohibition days. The bartender tells me she has female customers in their 80s who still only use the side entrance.
Knotty Pine on the corner of Fait Avenue and Conkling Street in Highlandtown might be the only bar in Baltimore that hasn't hidden the metal trough that now serves as the bar's footrest—in the past, it was used as a men's urinal and spittoon. Women were relegated to the back of the room, which may have been an advantage, saving them the sight drunk dudes just whipping it out at the bar.
The bartender at Sherry's claims to have actually seen ghosts in there and occasionally has to dodge mysteriously thrown objects. She says two men used to own the bar and eventually one wanted to sell the place, but the other didn't. So the one man killed the other and went on to sell the bar anyway, and now the ghost of the scorned businessman haunts the place.
And the appeal of these haunts is obvious; who wouldn't want to linger? Stocked with cheap snacks like UTZ potato chips, peanut butter crackers, and sometimes even Rolaids and Tylenol (perfect for warding off tomorrow's hangover), neighborhood bars offer a comfort and convenience that makes you want to stay awhile. Most of them have their own jukeboxes and only $5 will cover at least a 15-minute medley of your favorite songs.
A lot of them even sell lottery scratch-offs, which we found to be surprisingly thrilling at Knotty Pine. My friend bought a $2 ticket and won his money back, only to lose it again on the next ticket. Out of pure generosity (and perhaps a little pity), the bartender bought the entire bar a round of scratch-offs. One guy behind us won $25 and then he bought the bar another round of scratch-offs with his winnings. Looking around at all of us gleefully scratching lottery tickets, sipping my very first egg nog (it was on special), and jamming to Heart on the jukebox, I realized how long it's been since I had that much fun at a bar.
For the most part, Baltimore's neighborhood joints offer a peaceful,respite from a hard day on the job and occasionally an atmosphere that feels more like somebody's living room than a bar proper: At Mary's Tavern on the corner of Gough Street and S. Chester Street in Upper Fells Point, the owner's brown recliner is in clear view down the hall from the seats at the bar. Some bars even have weekly events to inspire that unique camaraderie, like the 20-week shuffleboard bowling league at Griffith's or the bring-your-own-vinyl night at Idle Hour.
Separate from the pushing and shoving of frenzied dance parties and the extravagant prices of sometimes overly complicated cocktails, these bars proved a refreshing reprieve from the oft-praised Baltimore that seems intent on sanitizing its outliers and oddities—or getting rid of them altogether.