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Five picks for downtown bars to avoid the crowds during Light City

Five picks for downtown bars to avoid the crowds during Light City
Bar manager Candis Horney makes an orange crush at Water Street Tavern on a recent Friday. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Running Monday through April 3, the first Light City Baltimore festival will soon take over the Inner Harbor with 50 installations of tech art, while potentially drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors.

While the event's success remains to be seen, one thing is for certain: It's going to be harder than usual to get a drink downtown. But whether you're a tourist or simply haven't bar-hopped by the Inner Harbor in a long time, there are plenty of options to avoid the chains and usual suspects.

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In an effort to leave the memorabilia-hawking, find-it-in-any-major-city establishments to the amateurs, here are five bars — all within short walking distance of the festival — for when you need refreshment and a breather from the bright lights.

Argosy Cafe opened last July downtown.
Argosy Cafe opened last July downtown. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Argosy Cafe (7 N. Calvert St., 443-869-2942; argosycafe.com)
Hours: 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

When it came time to choose a location for his cafe-meets-lounge, the father-son team of Jay and James Shaffer picked downtown for its potential. They liked the combination of Inner Harbor foot traffic and the ongoing development of surrounding apartment buildings near the Inner Harbor.

"We see downtown as a great opportunity for one of Baltimore's next great neighborhoods," James Shaffer said.

James hopes to draw crowds for meals in the morning and drinks later in the day. For Light City attendees, Argosy will sweeten the deal with a free house drip coffee with the purchase of a breakfast burrito or sandwich. They will also receive 10 percent off their food and drink bills after 7 p.m. during the week, the co-owner said.

What makes it worth a stop? Argosy Cafe has the right combination of house-made food (to name a few: bacon, roast beef and matchstick French fries that "have been described as crack by most people that have them," James Shaffer said) and beer options (eight rotating drafts of local and craft favorites from $4-$8). "A lot of times, tourists say they wished they had a place like this where they lived," he said.

Peter's Pour House (111 Mercer St., 410-539-5818, peterspourhouse.com)
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday; 8:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Tuesday-Sunday

Peter Kimos' pub looks like an ideal neighborhood hangout, so much so that "House of Cards" shot there for Episode 2 of the Netflix drama's latest season.

Owner Peter Kimos said he knows why his laidback haunt — which opened on Calvert Street in 1974 and moved to its current location, a former print shop, a dozen years later — was chosen for filming.

"People come in from New York City, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and say, 'Oh my God, it's like being home.' It's the same atmosphere [of their local bar]," Kimos said. "They walk in and say, 'Wow, this sure isn't Harborplace.'"

The prices reflect the approachability, with all-day specials that include $5 32-ounce National Bohemian, $4 Jagermeister, $3 Fireball, $4 vodka bombs, $5 crushes and $5 Bloody Marys.

What makes it worth a stop? The congenial company, Kimos said. "Even strangers walk in the door and two minutes later, they're full-tilt into a conversation and feel like they've been customers forever," he said.

Pratt Street Ale House (206 W. Pratt St., 410-244-8900, prattstreetalehouse.com)
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily

For those traveling in large packs, Pratt Street Ale House offers the space (six bar areas across three floors and a patio with seating) to enjoy some locally made beers without feeling overcrowded. Plus, if you mention you're a Light City attendee, the bar will take 10 percent off your total bill during the festival.

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And you will want to try these beers, made by the bar's Oliver Breweries. (For drafts, you'll have 24 options of mostly Oliver brews to choose from.)

For non-picky drinkers, sales director Stephen Walsh recommends two popular drafts. Their most popular beer, Draft Punk ($6), is an English take on an American India Pale Ale brew.

What makes it worth a stop? Pratt Street Ale House makes an ideal first stop for out-of-towners, Walsh said. "Often, we're a gateway, and from here people realize they should go see this and that as well," he said. "But really, it's about serving local beers and being owned by local people."

The exterior and patio of Water Street Tavern.
The exterior and patio of Water Street Tavern. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Water Street Tavern (102 Water St., 410-605-9495)
Hours: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-midnight Sunday

If it feels like spring, Water Street Tavern and its Key West-inspired patio will allow you to escape the heavy foot traffic without retreating indoors to a low-lit bar.

It won't hurt the bank account too much either. It's always happy hour here, and its regular prices back it up: $2.95 rail drinks, domestic bottles, 16-ounce National Bohemian and Yuengling drafts; $3.95 imported bottles and house wines; $4.95 22-ounce Boh and Yuengling drafts. On Fridays, select Pinnacle vodka bombs are $5.

There are also $5 appetizers of Santa Fe egg rolls, mussels and more from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Friday.

What makes it worth a stop? How welcoming it is to regulars and tourists alike, said bar manager Candis Horney. "We welcome you as you are," Horney said, pointing out the relaxed vibe and lack of strict dress code. "[Tourists] love the atmosphere. We make them feel like the regulars that come in every single day."

17 Light (17 Light St., 410-454-8904, 17-light.com)
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday; 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday

Once in a while, a hotel bar is the overlooked oasis among the throngs. At 17 Light, located inside the Residence Inn by Marriott, the handsomely designed bar could be the setting you need to catch a breather.

Weekday happy-hour specials include $4 draft beers, $4 house wines, $4 single rail liquors and $5 small plates like Buffalo shrimp and potstickers. Light City visitors staying at the Residence Inn will receive electronic coupons for specials at 17 Light as well, general manager Patrick Miner said.

Enthusiasm among staff has been building for Light City, he said. They're eager to show out-of-towners the city has bounced back from the unrest related to Freddie Gray's death.

"We are thrilled about it because last year was a tough year," Miner said.

What makes it worth a stop? For travelers using the Metro subway, 17 Light's location makes it a prime stop before the Inner Harbor, Miner said. "It's a good place to pregame before going out to the festival," he said.

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