A running debate among my friends is which Baltimore bar has the most prime location. We all prioritize different elements, but the answer always seemed clear in my mind: 1629 Thames St., the peninsular Fells Point spot that most recently housed Shuckers for an eight-year run that ended last summer.
When I first arrived in Baltimore in 2008, we would often visit Shuckers, for bar crawls, happy hours and late at night. We could drink on the patio and enjoy the view of the harbor, and the atmosphere was laid-back. When it lacked energy, there was at least always something to look at: tourists waiting for the water taxi or locals walking dogs or some pirates dressed in full garb.
But over time, Shuckers began to feel a bit stale, while newer bars with more interesting concepts gradually pulled us away. When the bar announced its closing in June 2013, it felt natural to hope the next tenant would better utilize the space. With its waterfront location and spacious interior, 1629 Thames St. seemed like an opportunity set up for success in the right hands.
Enter Barcocina, a modernly chic bar and restaurant with a Mexican-inspired menu that opened in May. Take one walk through, and it's immediately apparent the new owners — the same team behind Fells Point's Bond Street Social — saw a similar chance at prosperity.
The crisply renovated space is nothing short of gorgeous, with just the right accents of wood to keep it from feeling too industrial. The most striking change is the addition of garage doors all around the restaurant, which allow for seemingly widescreen, picturesque views of the water. Ownership knows the location's strengths, and they did not miss the chance to exploit it.
My first few visits came shortly after Barcocina opened, and the night crowd seemed to overlap with Bond Street Social's classy-for-Baltimore clientele. If this city is a dive-bar town, then Barcocina is more like an outlying hotspot filled with young professionals in nice clothes. Weekend nights were, and are still often packed.
Dish Baltimore Newsletter
Get the scoop on that new restaurant, learn about chef changes and discover your favorite new recipe. All your Baltimore food news is here.
But on a more recent Friday night, Barcocina seemed more settled with a thinner mix of tourists and locals. (Perhaps many were trying to enjoy one last weekend at the beach.) General manager Mike Donovan recently told me that Barcocina aims to appeal to out-of-towners and Baltimoreans, and the scene seemed to show the bar was achieving balance.
A smaller crowd afforded us an up-close view of the bar program, which Donovan called "approachable with a touch of craft." The cocktail menu is smartly divided into three sections: sweet, smoky and spicy. There are also a dozen beers on draft, both from Maryland (Heavy Seas Powder Monkey, Evolution Lot 3 IPA) and not (Stone Go To IPA, Brooklyn Sorachi Ace.) All cost $6, and my recommendation would be the excellent Dogfish Head Namaste.
The Smoky Margarita ($11) lived up to its name. The drink was made with El Buho Silver Mezcal, Patron Citronge orange liqueur, house sour mix, agave nectar and freshly squeezed lime juice. The mezcal's dramatic smoky flavor dominated the cocktail, which worked for some of us and turned others off.
The Margarita en Fuego ($11) has emerged as a popular choice, and it was easy to taste why. The Agave Loco tequila shone, while the agave nectar, lime juice and sour mix brought the balance of necessary sweetness. The jalapeno foam on top provided just enough kick, and spoke to the list's "touch of craft."
We also tried a pretty tasty mojito ($10) based on a friend's recommendation. Even with a healthy pour of Bacardi Silver rum, the drink — which also included mint, lime juice and soda water — went down easily, which seemed like a testament to the bartender. (In my visits, service has been consistently fine at Barcocina. Bartenders are friendly enough, but it's clear efficiency matters most to them. I'm not complaining.)
Two days after the Friday visit, I returned for a friend's brunch. We ordered mojitos, but this time, the pint glasses were filled more than halfway with muddled mint. "Would you like a sip of my salad?" the friend asked. We could not take a drink from the straw without swallowing mint, which was not cool. Still, it was hard not to shrug and say, "Oh well," as we stared out the open garage doors and into the gleaming harbor. Even if the drinks weren't consistent, the view was, and at this location, that means a lot.