Since opening six months ago, the Horseshoe Casino has illuminated downtown like a beacon of ... well, what exactly?
There are plenty of questions surrounding the Horseshoe Casino's economic viability (the division of Caesars Entertainment Corp. that operates Horseshoe filed for bankruptcy protection in January) and long-term impact on Baltimore, but I decided to leave the number crunching to the economists and the political pontificating to the talking heads. Instead, as a previous patron of Maryland Live, Delaware Park and numerous Atlantic City casinos — and not to mention a nightlife reporter and critic for The Sun — I wanted to finally see the glitzy spectacle in person.
So, my roommate Mike and I — two Horseshoe first-timers — recently ventured to the Horseshoe in hopes of answering one question: Would we, two city-based young professionals living a short Uber ride away, want to spend a weekend night here?
Our plan was simple: Arrive at 9:30 p.m. and bar-crawl through Horseshoe's bars and casual restaurants. The goal was not to definitively review these spots, but to provide an account of a singular, bouncing-around experience. It wasn’t quite the experience you would have — you likely will not have a Horseshoe-hired public-relations person, who was unobtrusive and there mostly to monitor our photographer, trailing you — but the aim was simply to capture a visitor's first Horseshoe experience one Friday night in February.
14Forty (410-960-0051; open 24 hours)
After showing our driver's licenses to security, it was a short walk to 14Forty, Horseshoe's most intriguing aspect because it is the only bar in Baltimore serving alcohol 24 hours a day (the name plays on the number of minutes in a day). The design is attractively open, with a large stage for a band above the bar that is easily viewable regardless of where you stand.
I hoped for a packed dance floor and signs of questionable hedonism. But it was too early for that type of action, so instead, we were treated — I guess? — to a “Deal or No Deal”-type of promotion. Selecting from 10 suitcases with different amounts inside, a Silver Spring woman named Karen Taylor eventually won $1,538, which seemed fun for her and not so much for the other 70 or so patrons that watched.
As we finished our Bud Lights (reasonably priced for a casino at $5.50), the fear of a lethargic night became planted in my head. We agreed to circle back to 14Forty later.
B'More Beers (844-777-7463; 11-1 a.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday)
While 14Forty represented a question mark, B'More Beers was a clear indication of thoughtful planning. As the name indicates, the focus here is locally brewed beers. Some city bar owners could learn from the tavern's rotating collection of 18 draft beers by Heavy Seas, Flying Dog, Stillwater, DuClaw, The Brewer's Art and Raven Beer.
I was concerned the booming soundsystem from 14Forty would bleed into this quaint beer bar, but thankfully that was not the case.
I interrupted patron Teresa Cameron as she scrolled on her phone, and asked how often she comes to Horseshoe. She lit up and replied, “Twice a month — usually on Fridays.” She rattled off reasons: excellent parking, good food, a sense of safety. But her main reason for coming was 14Forty.
“I don't go to [Maryland] Live anymore,” Cameron said. “There's just great entertainment here.”
Guy Fieri's Baltimore Kitchen & Bar (443-931-4387; 11 a.m.-midnight Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday)
Celebrity chef and Flavortown monarch Guy Fieri loves Baltimore, so his own restaurant here was no surprise. We took seats at the bar, which established its casualness by partially overlapping into the casino floor. It can feel like a sit-down restaurant if you go inside, or a place for a quick burger break in between slot pulls if you do not. It helps give the impression that Horseshoe flows fluidly from bar to restaurant to casino and back. (An exception is the fancier eatery Jack Binion's Steak, which we skipped because this was not that type of trip.)
The most memorable drink of the night came from here — the Monkey Wrench ($12). We worried it would be too sweet with its Wild Turkey bourbon, lemon juice and maple syrup, but the clever use of cayenne pepper cut through the layers of sugar nicely. We left, but not before a shot of frozen Fireball ($8), displayed in a fake block of ice, that was refreshingly cold and poured to the shooter's brim.
Johnny Sanchez (443-931-4575; 5-11 p.m. Monday-Friday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday-Sunday)
The hype around Johnny Sanchez was based on its high-profile collaborators, chefs John Besh and Aaron Sanchez. While I've heard good things about the food, we were there to bar-crawl, and the low-lit Johnny Sanchez was the sleepiest of the bunch. Patrons quietly ate and looked at their phones while a DJ played dance music to an empty floor. Live music was coming later, but we were not willing to wait. (Isn't relocating on a whim the true beauty of a bar crawl?) With that said, the colorful, Mexican-inspired mural on the right wall and eye-catching light fixtures above the rectangular bar left an impression.
Twisted Yard Bar
Located in the Baltimore Marketplace — the first-floor hub of eateries including Tark's at the ’Shoe and Lenny's Deli — Twisted Yard Bar is described as “reminiscent of ... New Orleans' Bourbon Street“ on Horseshoe's website.
Not quite. Twisted Yard Bar felt more like a kiosk with some bar seats. I had heard the slushies ($8) were delicious, but only pina colada was available. (It was flavorful, but I would have preferred the other usual option, mango.) There were ingredients missing to make a mojito as well, and the Horseshoe Golden Ale, something that should always be flowing, was kicked, too, according to our friendly and apologetic bartender. Our next stop was the sports bar TAG Bar, but we arrived to find employees taking apart the entire bar. Construction rendered it inoperable for the night.
14Forty: Round 2
We decided to return to 14Forty around 11:30 p.m. to see if the energy had changed. It was a good thing we came back. The night's band, Lost in Paris, wasted no time in playing radio hits that inspire up-on-your-feet dancing.
The night peaked when the Philadelphia-based quintet played an on-the-mark cover of Jeremih's “Don't Tell ’Em.” The sampled melody of the ’90s hit “Rhythm is a Dancer” meshes with Jeremih's modern R&B singing and the quotable rap verse by YG, and the result offered a little bit of everything to everyone in attendance. Before we knew it, the racially diverse crowd — which had likely doubled in size since our visit earlier — was dancing with a carefree attitude and a wonderful looseness.
A birthday party at a VIP table then rose to its feet and formed multiple lines on the floor. What seemed like a group dancing together turned into a tiny flash mob performing pop-and-lock dance moves. Their unbridled joy was contagious. My body refused to not join the fun.
As the band segued into Stevie Wonder's “Signed, Sealed Delivered I'm Yours” and then into Disclosure's “Latch,” I pulled the leader of the dance, Charles Sanders, aside. A Zumba instructor, the Columbia resident said he comes “for the atmosphere and bands.” He introduced his wife, whose birthday they were all celebrating, who said she chose Horseshoe for the special night after a friend had a birthday party here a few weeks back. For her, the city's bars lack the club vibe she wanted. Horseshoe made an attractive alternative.
“We don't want to drive all the way to D.C. for this,” Michele Sanders said. Before I could ask another question, Sanders, with a tiara on her head, was pulled away by friends for more dancing.
A server then delivered a bottle of Skyy cherry vodka, fake sparkler and all, to their table. I glanced around 14Forty and saw Teresa Cameron, whom I met at B'More Beers, grooving to the music.
Smiling, she shot me a look like, “Told you so.”
As our night wound down, Mike and I took stock of the experience. While most casinos feel like gambling centers with entertainment afterthoughts on the side, Horseshoe felt more like an adult playground with enough amenities to keep non-risk-takers happy and genuinely entertained.
“I'd come here on a Friday night not to even gamble,” Mike said on the way to the exit after Friday night had technically turned to Saturday morning.
It was a high compliment to a business plan with a lot riding on it, and a reminder that Horseshoe's operators truly tried to appeal to Marylanders as a whole. Given the question of if I would ever happily return or not, Mike and I left in agreement.