On a recent Saturday night, a friend and I sat idly at the main upstairs bar at Anastasia, the Italian restaurant by Kali's Restaurant Group that replaced Meli in Fells Point last month.
There were 20 or so patrons, fragmented into smaller groups, scattered between our area and a second bar by the entrance. An annual Fells Point bar crawl was winding down, and the neighborhood's energy level — noticeably depleted after 12 hours of raging — permeated here, too.
After a Heineken ($6), we made a vain attempt to catch up to the crawlers by ordering cocktails. I chose a Limoncello Lift ($12), one of the five "specialty martinis" listed on Anastasia's drink menu. The Hangar One vodka provided the reliable, high-quality anchor, but it was the other elements that were potentially concerning: House-made sour mix, Limoncello and a splash of an energy drink. All together, it could have been sickly sweet, but our bartender was on the nose with her pours, presenting a cocktail that was easy to sip and appreciate.
My drinking partner opted for a more traditional route by ordering a martini ($12.25) made with Bombay Sapphire gin. We agreed it was a touch too dry, and we wondered about the impact a bit more vermouth could have had. But a martini, by nature, is hard to screw up, especially when it is made with Bombay, so this dry debate felt more like nit-picking than a condemnation.
After these drinks — and an overpriced Miller Lite ($5.50) that inadvertently spilled onto the floor, thanks to my friend — the natural dilemma of "Do we leave? Do we stay?" set in around midnight. The knocked-over beer was the most exciting aspect of our night to that point, so I closed our tab as my friend headed to the restroom.
"You've got to see downstairs," he said after returning a few minutes later. We headed to Anastasia's cavernous lower level, and there, the true appeal of the bar revealed itself in the form of a wide-open dance floor. A DJ was spinning house music as women danced and men mostly watched from the couches and walls on the sides. From upstairs to downstairs, the conspicuous shift in vibe was wonderfully jarring, and the fact we nearly missed it shows how separate each environment felt. Upstairs is the polite social gathering, while downstairs is the real party.
But is it a party worth attending? From a design standpoint, the answer is yes, as the downstairs — renovated from its Meli days — provides space to dance and couches to mingle comfortably. There's a downstairs bar, too, which offers the same spirits and beers (including four hard-to-find Italian drafts) as upstairs.
The party's potency will depend on a visitor's appreciation for electronic dance music. General manager Tracey Wise says rap won't be played, and Top 40 songs will be mostly by request and played sparingly. Wise is not shy about her intentions: She wants to bring a Euro-style nightclub to her restaurant's bottom floor, and that means relying almost exclusively on EDM and its throbbing subgenres.
As a business decision, I understand Anastasia's commitment to a genre whose popularity has seen rapid, seemingly exponential growth in America in the past decade. But on our visit, the decision felt limiting, and it stunted the potential fun the setting could have facilitated. A new acquaintance said she and her friends were disappointed that their requests for hip-hop and R&B songs could not be fulfilled, and we agreed.
Anastasia's bottom floor is ripe with potential, but management should consider allowing DJs to mix in different genres to keep the dance floor feeling fresh, especially if there are requests from patrons. In 2014, virtually all music fans reject the notion of genre loyalty, and instead fill personal playlists with disparate songs pulled from all genres. Anastasia's basement — the most obvious reason for visiting — would be better served by taking a similar approach.
Back story: After closing Meli in October 2012, Kali's Restaurant Group (Kali's Court, Mezze, Adela) went back to the drawing board for a new concept in the same Fells Point space. Last month, after three months of planning and renovations, Anastasia — an Italian restaurant looking to attract a sophisticated neighborhood crowd, according to general manager Tracey Wise — opened in its place.
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