As in any major city, Baltimore and its bars benefit from a hot ticket.
Whether it is the Orioles' opening day or a Justin Timberlake and Jay Z concert downtown, these events rarely fail to draw large crowds. In the process, many attendees find time to patronize bars in the neighborhoods they visit.
In late February, it was easy to see similar stars aligning by the Hippodrome Theatre. As the multiple Tony Award-winning musical "The Book of Mormon" had a well-received 13-day run downtown, the Italian wine bar and restaurant Forno quietly opened around the same time. Throughout "Mormon's" run, empty seats were hard to find at the sharp-looking new bar, co-owner Emina Dukic told the Baltimore Sun in early March.
Coincidence? Probably not. The sample size was small, but it seemed fair to assume that if the city's downtown theater district is buzzing, Forno — across the street from the Hippodrome and around the corner from the Everyman Theatre — would benefit from its proximity.
But there is a flip side. What happens when a show is not the talk of the town?
On a recent Saturday night, my bartender openly explored such a theory. He said buzz surrounding the Hippodrome's most recent production, "Peter and the Starcatcher," was not nearly as palpable as "Mormon," and his nightly bar crowd lacked because of it. He seemed already nostalgic for Forno's busy opening period, which he said "Mormon" undoubtedly contributed to.
I looked around Forno's intimate wine bar, and optimistically pointed out there were nine other patrons — all talking and enjoying the shared company — taking up the majority of the bar's seats. He replied that six were Forno employees who had just finished shifts. When I asked if I had just missed the theater dinner crowd (it was around 8:30 p.m., a half hour after the start time of the night's show), the bartender said that while Forno had hosted a few dinner parties for actors earlier in the day, the overall crowd had significantly thinned out well before 8.
The bartender painted a seemingly dangerous scenario. A show with noticeable buzz such as "Mormon" helps fill seats at Forno, but expectations become tempered depending on the production and the crowd it draws. Not every play offers the crossover, water-cooler appeal of "Mormon," so for Forno to excel, it must offer an experience that stands on its own.
On my Saturday night visit, I found Forno to be likeable enough and approachable, but it also failed to make a memorable impression. The best aspect was the bartender's attentiveness — he checked on me multiple times, and offered to answer any questions I might have about the menu — but part of it was to avoid having idle hands. We jokingly agreed that time moves slowest for a bartender with no patrons.
Forno's cocktail menu offered nine selections, ranging from seasonal sangria ($9) to the Southern Gent ($10), which mixes Wemyss single malt Scotch whisky, amaretto, walnut bitters and lemon. In search of a post-Preakness drink, I chose a Kentucky Royale ($10), which used Bulleit bourbon, Kirschwasser brandy, ruby port wine and Luxardo cherry liqueur. The stiffness was impossible to ignore and even appreciated, but the Royale was as dark and heavy as it reads. By the end of it, I was happy to move on to something else.
The eight beers on draft offered a nice mix of local (Union Craft's Duckpin Pale Ale, Heavy Seas' Small Craft, The Brewer's Art's Ozzy) and craft (Breckenridge Brewery's Agave Wheat and Troegs' Perpetual IPA). I chuckled to see a line dedicated to Coors — not Light, but the original banquet beer.
Before I left, I gave the bartender an opportunity to pair a wine with my meal. He rightfully recommended a delicate white wine — in this case, the slightly fruity Mohua Sauvignon Blanc ($9) from New Zealand — to complement my white fish. The wine had the amount of zest and brightness I needed, and the choice was further proof the bartender knew his stuff.
For theater-goers looking for a drink before or after a show, Forno provides a quieter atmosphere than nearby beer bar Alewife. But on my recent visit, it also lacked Alewife's attractive attitude and energy. The hope is Forno eventually develops a stronger identity and its own reasons to visit, regardless of what's playing across the street.