Falling into a routine can be easy, especially when it comes to the bar scene in Baltimore.
All imbibers are "regulars" somewhere, and it's convenient to lean on what's familiar or what's in your comfort zone. For a lot of us, it's what's in walking distance.
We all have and need "our" spots, but consider this year's best bars list a reminder to fight that urge sometimes. In all of our neighborhoods, there are wonderful establishments — many of which weren't included here because of space. Below, you'll find my Top 25 bars for 2016, and while I stand by each selection, my sincere hope is you'll merely read it as a starting point. (Many of the spots on the Best Restaurants list have bars worthy of inclusion here, but we did our best to limit overlap.)
Just like our dining scene, the city's bars continue to make significant strides in all sorts of ways, from service to cocktail concepts and their execution.
It's always a good time for a drink in Baltimore.
Two decades after The Brewer's Art opened, it's impossible to imagine the bar scene without this Mount Vernon stalwart. (Baltimore Sun video)
1. The Brewer's Art
Two decades after the Brewer's Art opened, it's impossible to imagine Baltimore's bar scene without this Mount Vernon stalwart. Its charms — the duality of the bright first floor and cavernous basement, the knowledgeable staff and those delicious, brewed-on-premises beers — reveal themselves the more you visit, which is why it's my pick for No. 1 this year. Even for great bars, sustained consistency can seem out of reach. But at Brewer's Art, it's a given. Let's not take it for granted.
It's easy to applaud Spike Gjerde's flagship restaurant for its strict farm-to-table standards, and the fact that they apply to the bar, too. (You won't find any citrus behind the bar, for example, because the fruits aren't grown close enough to the restaurant.) But those principles wouldn't matter if the drinks — especially the rotating, seasonal cocktails — didn't taste fantastic. Of course, they do, since the bar program lives up to the high standards the restaurant long ago established. There might be no better night out than sitting at this bar, and enjoying drinks and a meal at your leisure.
As we all become more educated about craft beer and its dizzying array of styles, the significance of this Fells Point legend only becomes greater and more obvious. Max's predicted the craft-beer explosion, and continues to be the city's guiding light as to what it means to be a true beer bar. Bolstered by the knowledge of its veteran staff, the selection at Max's feels encyclopedic, like an unconquerable mountain of ales, sours, stouts, lagers and whatever else you can imagine. When it comes to beer, this is still Baltimore's standard.
737 S. Broadway, Fells Point, 410-675-6297, maxs.com
It's all about the freewheeling spirit and atmosphere at The Cat's Eye Pub. (Baltimore Sun video)
It's all about the freewheeling spirit and atmosphere at Cat's Eye Pub, a required stop along Thames Street since 1975. A large part of that attitude comes from the jamming live music that takes place on Cat's Eye's tiny stage every night. But it's also the clientele — a wide range of ages and backgrounds, all looking to cut loose to some scorching blues with a drink in their hands. Don't forget your dancing shoes.
In a refreshingly low key Federal Hill setting, patrons can sip Bookmakers' reliable concoctions, from standards to seasonal drinks. You'll be hard-pressed to go wrong, whichever direction you choose. (Baltimore Sun video)
Once in a while, you come across a person behind the bar who is worthy of your blind trust, especially when it comes to cocktails. Ryan Sparks, Bookmakers' beverage director and a veteran of Baltimore's nightlife scene, is one of those people. In a still refreshingly low-key Federal Hill setting, patrons can sip Sparks' reliable concoctions, which are split among "Standards," "Seasonal" and "Classics." You'd be hard-pressed to go wrong, no matter which direction you take.
An ideal corner bar, Mahaffey's would make a welcome addition to any neighborhood in Baltimore. Mahaffey's calls Canton home, though, and it offers a respite from the usual haunts of O'Donnell Square. Mahaffey's has everything: A killer happy hour, thoughtful beer selection, underrated pub fare and a staff that treats everyone like a regular. Above all else, Mahaffey's is a community — just look at the walls, which are filled with names of members of their ever-growing beer club.
Tucked away inside Station North's Hyundai Plaza building, the Crown and its two multiuse rooms — Red and Blue — have been a pillar of local independent music since it opened in June 2013. On any given night, you can walk in and expect to be pleasantly surprised, if not blown away, by the breadth of talent and inspiration emanating from these small, magical rooms. Add the fact that the bar program is well constructed without taking itself too seriously, and you have an essential entity within Baltimore's nightlife.
James Nasty's dance parties, Metal Monday, potluck Ravens games, 2-4-1 Tuesdays, karaoke night … the reasons to spend time at the Ottobar go well beyond whatever artist is gracing the main stage that night. (With that said, the Ottobar's music schedule is almost always interesting.) Most venues' bars are barely-there afterthoughts; at Ottobar, it's an asset as vital as its PA system.
There's a reason everyone feels comfortable at "Club Chuck": It's a relic whose luster only gets better with time. (Maybe that's why the bar believes ghosts are still hanging around.) The dark mood lighting, plush booths and impeccable jukebox (not to mention well-priced drinks) make Club Charles a bar you show out-of-town friends still curious as to why Baltimore is dubbed Charm City.
Before a downtown concert or game, my friends and I make sure to start our nights early at this laid-back pub with a couple of 32-ounce $5 drafts. It's a quintessential Baltimore bar because it exceeds expectations with low prices and warm company, but would never make a big show of it. As fancier, high-concept bars continue to pop up around the city, blue-collar spots like Peter's only grow more important for balance.
Co-owner Lane Harlan's newer taqueria/mezcaleria down the street has rightfully earned plenty of buzz in Remington (seriously, go to Clavel), but her first bar — W.C. Harlan — is still quietly churning out inventive cocktails of the highest quality. It also doesn't hurt that W.C. Harlan remains one of the city's most striking bars. Walking in is like stepping through a time machine with an old-soul guide whose taste hasn't aged a day. Some of the mystery that surrounded W.C. Harlan when it opened has dissipated (there's actually a Facebook page now), but it maintains a palpable aura of vintage cool.
400 W. 23rd St., Remington, 410-925-7900
12. The Windup Space
The beauty of the Windup Space is its commitment to challenging what "a night at the bar" can mean. Here, it could be a blistering set from a rising touring band, a burlesque drawing class, the local "Expert of Nothing" game show, the cult film series Mondo Baltimore or … you get the point. Baltimore's arts scene is consistently described as vibrant, and it's because places like the Windup Space and owner Russell de Ocampo openly embrace the off-kilter. Best of all, it lacks all pretension.
Ryan Sparks and Lane Harlan honed their bartending skills at this excellent, unassuming restaurant in Canton. Visits since their years-ago departures reveal a bar program that's still serving happy customers well-balanced cocktails in an intimate setting. The food at Jack's will always be the star, but those in the know wouldn't pass up a drink. For anyone looking to end their night on a sweet note that's not dessert, try a peanut butter and jelly shot. It tastes better than it sounds.
In June, Walt's Inn owner Wilhelmina Watnoski stood before the liquor board for her first-ever violation because her Canton karaoke bar had been operating, for 23 years without a live entertainment license. The board's license approval came soon after, and I'd like to think it was an easy decision. Because a nightlife scene here without Walt's — without the potent Jell-O shots, without bartender Rose Dodge and her Harley parked outside, without the karaoke songbook that weighs heavier than a Thanksgiving turkey — would stink. Here, everyone is a star, off-key wailing and all.
In 2016, even neighborhood corner bars feel the need to offer an array of reasons to step through the door. Consider Blue Pit BBQ an example worth imitating, because few bars have the drink selection and inviting atmosphere (not to mention barbecue) that this popular Hampden hangout offers. More than 100 whiskeys, long community picnic tables in the back, hardworking and smiling staff — it's all here, for you and even your pet. (Yes, Blue Pit is dog-friendly, and often hosts fundraisers for organizations like BARCS and the Animal Allies Rescue Foundation.)
When Salt owner Jason Ambrose opened this bar in December 2014, I worried that the Locust Point community wouldn't realize what a gem it had. As the bar approaches its second anniversary, those concerns have dissipated. Who wouldn't recognize such a thoughtful and well-executed approach to a neighborhood spot? The next time you need an easygoing night out, sidle up to 1157's bar and explore the menu of forward-thinking cocktails and bar snacks.
If you care even a little bit about beer and its many complexities and haven't been to Of Love and Regret, you're doing yourself a disservice. Located at the corner of a busy intersection in Brewers Hill, Of Love and Regret is a beer-lover's destination. That's partially because it's the brick-and-mortar bar/restaurant of the celebrated craft-beer company Stillwater Artisanal Ales, which you'll find plenty of on draft. That would be reason enough to go, but Of Love and Regret's beer list goes beyond Stillwater's many offerings, so the daily menu reads like a carefully curated playlist, with not a bad song in sight. Don't miss the second-floor bottle shop, either, so you can take home some of the options you didn't get to try.
The second Federal Hill bar from the Bookmakers team is nothing like the first, and that's a good thing. If Bookmakers is about sophistication, neighbor Boiler Room exudes Dave & Buster's-esque fun, thanks to a plethora of video game consoles (old and new), Skee-Ball, pop-a-shot basketball machines and flat-screen TVs set to sports. The bar program reflects the whimsy, too, with its playful but well-paired combinations of beers and shots. A one-two punch of Bookmakers and Boiler Room will have you rethinking the possibilities of Federal Hill nightlife.
If I had to pick only one bar on Boston Street in Canton, the choice is easy: Bartenders, where, as the name suggests, the staff will chat you up like you've been a regular for decades, even on your first visit. The inclusive setting will draw you back, as will the large pizza pies. A tip: Don't leave without a Dr Pepper shooter — a shot of amaretto poured inside a 7-ounce Miller High Life.
2218 Boston St., Canton, 410-534-2337
20. The Owl Bar
Despite its location on the first floor of the Belvedere, the long-standing Owl Bar lacks flash, and instead presents a model of consistency. You could have been a regular decades ago, moved away and came back to Baltimore this week, and chances are good you'll recognize the same subtle charms that make the Owl Bar an institution. (The blinking owls said to be used as tools in getting around Prohibition laws, for example, are still perched on display.)
As new breweries pop up around the city, Waverly Brewing Company (actually located in Hampden) set itself apart when it opened in November with its taproom. While a lot of breweries' taprooms feel like tacked-on afterthoughts, Waverly's is a place begging for relaxation, with comfortable furniture and outdoor seating to watch and play cornhole. And thanks to the vision of brewer Roy Fisher, Waverly pumps out a large, rotating collection of beers that emphasize accessibility.
There's still something to be said for style points. Housed inside the former No. 16 firehouse, and with the detail designs to prove it, this relative newcomer has established itself as a just-plain-cool Mount Vernon hangout. The brewed-on-site draft options are good, but the cocktails — like the eye-catching Gimme a Beet — are the drink menu's secret weapons.
Bars often run into problems when they try to overextend themselves. Birroteca knows a simple, well-executed vision — in this case, a bar-centric Italian eatery with shareable plates and a nicely crafted list of beer, wine and cocktails — goes a long way. This fall marks Birroteca's fourth anniversary, and as long as it continues on its path of consistency, there should be plenty more.
"I think the neighborhood was starving for it," Snake Hill co-owner Randy Coffren told me this past winter, a few months after his bar opened in Highlandtown. Judging by Snake Hill's quick rise in popularity there, Coffren was right. But any neighborhood would want this celebration of artisan sausages and craft beer on their corner. Flashes of personality — from the fortune-teller machine to the bar top made of thousands of Scrabble pieces — only bolster the ambience.
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Some bars make this list for being the total package, but in the case of the LB Skybar, it's all about location — the 19th floor of the Lord Baltimore Hotel, to be exact. For years, Baltimoreans complained about our lack of rooftop bars, especially since D.C. has so many. (Little Brother Syndrome? Always!) Skybar, then, is the oasis in a desert of converted rowhome bars, and that alone makes it one of the most welcomed additions to the nightlife scene in years. The cocktails are pretty good, too — just expect hotel-bar prices.