Baltimore Taphouse in Canton looks just fine when you walk in. It's a long, narrow hall, with plenty of beer on tap and a pool table at the back.
But the first sign that you might be in better hands than you thought is found above the cash register. There, owner John Bates has propped up a dog-eared copy of Michael Jackson's "Great Beer Guide."
Jackson is the elder statesman among beer and whiskey writers — the Julia Child of beer lovers. His place above the bar suggests that the Taphouse serves one master: beer.
The bar does not have the biggest selection of rotating drafts in Canton — that would be Mahaffey's and Hudson Street Stackhouse — but it's a solid menu nonetheless. And more important, along with the bar's decor and music selection, is it's personable — a reflection of its owner's tastes and attitude.
Open since 2004, Taphouse just completed a renovation last summer that straightened the bar's layout from its former L-shape. Walls were repainted and wood panels added. It's definitely worth a visit. For the beer lover in search of a more low-key stop than, say, Mahaffey's, Taphouse might be the right fit. Here, all the beers are listed by the entrance on a chalkboard: Ace Pear Cider, Brewer's Art Resurrection, Dale's Pale Ale. There's also Stone IPA, Troeg's Sunshine Pils and White Marsh Brewing Company's Blueberry Ale.
There are two sets of eight draft lines — one by the entrance and one at the bar's halfway point — and the Taphouse rotates the offerings regularly. By the bottle, Taphouse carries more than 25 brands.
There's ample regional flavor here as well: not just White Marsh, but also DuClaw, Heavy Seas and Flying Dog.
The prices are reasonable, especially on Monday nights when drafts are a dollar off. That night, my Stone IPA was $3.75. On Wednesdays, Taphouse has $3.75 Stolis; on Thursdays, $5 bombs.
One complaint: Bates should list beer prices on the chalkboard; alcohol content is just as important, but I'd like to know how much I'm plunking down for a glass of Troegs.
Jackson once wrote that while beer has plenty of fans, it is less honored than wine. "In a small way, I want to help put right that injustice," he wrote. Taphouse apparently wants to do much the same thing. Its "Give us today our daily brew" plaque perfectly captures the bar's devotion to good beer.
Still, it would be a mistake to call this bar a taphouse; "tap-dorm" might be more fitting. It is what defenders would call cozy and critics might call cramped. The front end is taken up by about 15 stools, and the back by a couple of high-top tables and a pool table.
There is also a golf arcade machine and about seven plasma TV screens. When I went, most were showing ESPN, and another, incongruously, had Oliver Stone's "Nixon." Yet unlike other small bars that can feel overstuffed — I'm thinking of Nacho Mama's — Taphouse keeps its decor laid-back. Located near Patterson Park, parking is thankfully less a problem here than elsewhere in Canton.
On a Friday night, it might become crowded. But it'd be hard to imagine it would get rowdy. On the Monday night I was there, the bar was comfortable and perfect for conversation, with just the right level of boisterousness.
All but a few of the stools by the bar were taken. Later in the night, members of a softball league that had just finished playing started taking up the leftover seats. Bates did his best to keep the atmosphere convivial, talking to his patrons about baseball or last week's U2 concert. He did this over a steady soundtrack by bluesman Luther Allison.
He had a stack of Allison's CDs by the bar, another small detail underscoring that, right down to the music, Taphouse is reflective of one man's — or one family's — taste.
Baltimore Taphouse is open seven days a week, from noon to 2 a.m., at 600 South Potomac Street. Call 410-276-7553 for more information.