The conversion of a modest rowhouse into a bar inherits a problem with no obvious solution: What to do with such a limited space?
These types of bars often rely on cosmetic tweaks like fresh paintjobs or new light fixtures to convey change. The results are usually improvements — recent examples include Shotti's Point in Riverside, Canton's Silks and Cockey's in Upper Fells Point — but rarely do these new businesses feel like drastic transformations.
Bar Liquorice is a recent exception. In July, the team of Tom Looney, Jeff Cahill and Ed Scherer opened this cocktail lounge in the former Dirty Oars Tavern, a poorly named bar that offered a standard, low-stakes experience for less than six months last year. On a recent Saturday night, it was immediately apparent Bar Liquorice had grander ambitions.
The guiding light here seemed to be old-fashioned sophistication. The ambiance — muted and relaxed — came from a color scheme of mostly black, sienna and dark moss. A row of mini chandeliers hung above the bar as liquor bottles were illuminated by subtle backlighting. The soundtrack, a mix of Top 40 that included Rihanna, was surprisingly pop, but played at a level that still encouraged socializing.
The most interesting aspect of Bar Liquorice's design is its slightly separated lounge area in the back. When our party walked in, seats were mostly filled at the L-shaped bar in the front of the house, so a bartender suggested we try the lounge, which only had a couple of women sharing a couch over wine and cheese. They reassured us we were not intruding — the area's close quarters had us wondering — so we took seats on another plush sofa and a couple of chairs too soft for most bars.
The lounge is undeniably striking. Bold paintings adorn the walls, while an LED fireplace burns between bathroom doors. Oversized candles in lanterns add attractive light, while a green, longhaired rug in the center provides its own sort of brightness. A genie lamp sat on an end table next to a jar of Twizzler Nibs because ... well, why not?
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The stylized effort is ambitiously admirable, but imperfect. The setting felt like a zealous Pottery Barn display — easy to appreciate as a "look" but less effective in function. The cramped lounge made maneuvering difficult, especially for patrons headed to and from the bathroom. Potential drink spillage on nice furniture seemed like a genuine concern, too. Still, the lounge deliberately separates Bar Liquorice from other rowhouse bars, and it was refreshing to see owners unafraid of daring change.
My reservations about the design were nearly forgotten halfway through our visit, since good drinks often have that effect. On this visit, Bar Liquorice filled its four rotating draft lines with craft beers made in Maryland: Union Craft's Double Duckpin IPA ($6), Jailbreak's Welcome to Scoville IPA ($6), DuClaw's Bare Ass Blonde Ale ($5) and The Brewer's Art's Resurrection ($7).
The cocktail menu, separated into sections of "dark" and "lighter" spirits, offered its own intrigue, so we tried one from each.
For the former, we ordered a Negroni ($9), a solid test of any bar program. It looked worthy of Webster's, and tasted wonderful, too, thanks to the use of Few Spirits' crisp American gin and Cinzano Rosso vermouth. Campari and Scrappy's orange bitters intensified the flavor nicely. On the lighter side, we enjoyed a Mojito Proper ($10), a classically executed cocktail made with organic mint, lime juice, club soda and Blue Chair Bay white rum. We knew what to expect, and it was delivered as such.
Service was exemplary. Our two bartenders worked in concert, offering suggestions on the menu and frequently checking on us, even as they tended to patrons at the bar. The genial staff was also easy to chat with — a trait that feels rare more often that it should.
As we left, it was hard to imagine this location was Dirty Oars Tavern less than a year before. The neighborhood should respond better to Bar Liquorice than its previous tenant, which was fine but ultimately undistinguised. With delicious drinks, a helpful staff and an ambiance all its own, Bar Liquorice deserves a different fate, along with a following in Riverside and beyond.