The cost to transform an underused bar into a buzzing hotspot is not cheap. But as the saying goes, when you pay for quality, you only cry once.
Just ask Boathouse Canton co-owner Gene Singleton. He confirmed last week that the top-to-bottom renovations made to the former Bay Cafe (which closed in December after more than two decades of business) came with a $1.1 million price tag.
For a guy helping to foot such a bill, Singleton sure sounded happy about Boathouse Canton. (He and his wife, Maureen McEnerney, took control in January and opened the restaurant in mid-April.)
That's because Boathouse Canton has quickly established itself as a waterfront destination.
On a recent Saturday night, more than 100 people mingled around the new outdoor bar and patio areas behind the enclosed restaurant.
Most sat around dining tables, but a few groups sat under a gazebo on faux-VIP couches. Strings of lights illuminated the outside.
Inside, some large parties — most with reservations — ate dinner in the redesigned dining room.
Our group took seats at the long communal tables next to the bar and placed drink orders.
The names on the cocktail menu were neighborhood-centric, but were rather standard.
Most refreshing was the Boston St. Fizz ($10), a combination of Hendrick's gin, basil, cucumber, lime juice, simple syrup and club soda. It once again proved that the marriage of high-quality gin and cucumber has merit.
The Canton Crush ($8) read better on the menu (Deep Eddy Sweet Tea Vodka, lemon juice, simple syrup, club soda and Sprite) than it tasted. The nonalcoholic elements were counterproductive — instead of enhancing the vodka, they muddled the flavors to the point of unrecognizability.
An Orange Crush ($8), always a good way of gauging Baltimore bars, also seemed watered-down and in need of a boost of orange flavor, which was surprising since it used Absolut Mandarin vodka, triple sec and orange juice. These crushes needed work.
Boathouse's most significant improvement over Bay Cafe was the installation of 11 beer draft lines. Ten of the 11 options are craft brews, and four are locally brewed. (The outlier is National Bohemian, and really, who's complaining?) Pints were priced as expected: $6.50 for a Brewer's Art Resurrection and $6 each for Lagunitas IPA, Union Craft Duckpin Pale Ale and Samuel Adams Summer Ale.
The sophisticated interior of Boathouse is nice — it feels well suited for meals of large parties — but the outdoor social area remains the biggest draw. It was a change of pace to roam freely, drink in hand, at a Canton bar and not once utter, "Excuse me."
The outdoor bar, which even has four beer taps, was packed that Saturday night, but the smiling bartenders worked quickly to fill empty hands. (Service on this night was noticeably faster and more attentive than a frustrating visit I had weeks prior.)
To make that happen, service must find consistency. If that improves, Boathouse, with its beautiful design, enviable location and improved bar program, could be poised for a long run like its predecessor.