Over the past five years, the west side of downtown has been one of the city's most unforgiving neighborhoods for new bars.
They open and close here as quickly as it takes 8.9 percent alcohol to slip into your bloodstream. Alewife, the new beer hall at Eutaw and Fayette streets, is hoping to turn the trend on its head with sheer size and suds selection.
Billed as a high-end beer hall, the Daniel Lanigan-owned bar boasts of having a sprawling beer list — 40 on tap and 100 bottled varieties. And at 6,000 square feet, it might be as big as the German pavilion at Epcot.
With its sky-high ceilings, it's not hard to believe that it used to house a bank. But after opening four weeks ago, size hasn't seemed to pull the crowds in. On a couple of recent nights, there were more drafts on the menu than customers inside.
Locals might not have heard of it, or they might just be better served at the even higher-end, and more established, B&O American Brasserie just a few blocks away. The neighborhood might also be partly to blame.
Bedrock opened on the west side in 2006 and closed two years later. And last year, World of Wings cafe closed as well. The spot where Alewife is located was first occupied by Maggie Moore's, which closed three years after it opened in 2005. Moore's begat Lucy's Irish Pub, but that closed within a year.
Alewife's owners say happy hour and the weekends are the bar's most popular times. But if they want to outlast Maggie Moore's, they're going to have to keep those bar stools filled not just then, but throughout the week and during the Hippodrome's off-season. Otherwise, this might become better known as being that beer hall where you can get your reading done in peace.
More likely is that Alewife's size is working against it. While 21 N. Eutaw St. has dignified architecture, the building is a hulking monolith with high ceilings that retains much of the coldness of a bank lobby.
Though it's been repainted in a warm red, and dark-wood paneling covers the bar and tables, it still looks like the Treasury Department after a Pottery Barn makeover. The last thing I want when I'm going to grab a beer is to feel like I'm applying for a home mortgage loan.
While Lanigan can be commended for eschewing the long banquettes of most beer halls — or the spilled brewskis on the floor — maybe Alewife would benefit from a more rustic aesthetic. Empty as it is now, it's too forlorn, like a jungle gym without kids.
On a recent Monday at 10:30 p.m. there was one man inside other than me, wistfully picking at a giant steak while watching the Jets-Vikings game on ESPN, whose booming announcers filled the room. The next night there was a bigger crowd, but still only two dinner tables were occupied.
Alewife's biggest asset is its menu. This is something Lanigan knows well; he owns other beer halls in Massachusetts. There are 11 cocktails, five white wines, four reds and three sparkling varieties. The dinner menu offers burgers on brioche buns and a filet of beef with mushroom ragout, with prices ranging from $10 to $26.
The beers are the big draw, and they are listed in lots of different colors on a ceiling-high black chalkboard. Prices range from the $5 Smuttynose Shoals Ale to the $24, 25-ounce Allagash Victoria Ale. Bottled beers start with $4 Stone Pale Ales.
Happy hour, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., offers $2 Natty Bohs and $3 Yuenglings. Their vertical epic ales were particularly tasty. My Belgian dark ale ($6.50), the lightest in alcohol content, went down as pleasantly as a Thanksgiving dinner, leaving only a slight bitter finish. The 8.9 percent alcohol Belgian IPA, on the other hand, packed as much wallop as a Ravens linebacker.
The bartenders are friendly and quick to serve — not that there's a lot of competition for attention. They dress casually, with untucked shirts and backward caps. The same could be said of the crowd. This is as full of professionals as B&O, but with a sportier bent.
Alewife is still as handsome a beer hall as you can expect to find. This is especially evident from the second-floor balcony that overlooks the entire bar. From there, I saw the black napkins perfectly in place, the beer board sparkling like a kaleidoscope and the bartenders straining to keep themselves occupied.
And sitting at the bar, the crestfallen diner still finishing his steak, looking as lonely as the bar itself.
If you go
Alewife is at 21 N Eutaw St. The bar is open 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Mondays through Thursdays. It stays open until 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Call 410-545-5112 or go to alewifebaltimore.com.