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An improved Nick's Fish House still offers escapism

Some summers, a trip to the beach can seem like a distant, shimmering mirage. The hot sand, icy beverages and minimal decision-making — the thought is enough to instantly trigger the Liz Lemon inside all of us.

"I want to go to there," the mind mutters in defeat.

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I, too, have watched my summer disappear without that relaxing respite. But that's where the whining ends, because on a recent, idyllic Sunday afternoon, I was reminded of a beach-bar-inspired alternative right here in Baltimore: Nick's Fish House.

Of course, the Port Covington staple, which opened in 2004, can't check every box on a vacation itinerary, but it briefly made me forget I was in the city. That sense of escapism, albeit temporary and confined to the property, was rejuvenating in its own right.

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Significant change, at least on paper, came this year to Nick's. In January, new owners Sagamore Development, the ambitious real estate firm owned by Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, inserted a new management team that includes Steve "Monty" Montgomery, owner of the popular Dewey Beach hangout, the Starboard.

But an emphasis on continuity remained. The restaurant stayed open during construction, and the majority of the old staff kept their jobs, according to general manager Erik Brooks, a 10-year veteran of Nick's.

The goal, it seems, was to keep Nick's recognizable — the steamed crabs and shuttle bus to M&T Bank Stadium for Ravens home games were aspects management knew it needed to keep — and enhance it as well.

Based on my visit, they have achieved their goal.

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By the beginning of May, renovations were completed. Some of the changes were minor but necessary, like updated indoor bathrooms and the addition of a safety railing on the entrance ramp.

But most significant was the revamped deck. I've long considered the spacious, adjoining outdoor area Nick's' most appealing draw, and the renovations have only improved it.

On Sunday, it was hard to imagine a better place in the city to spend a few hours in the sun than Nick's' deck. It has three bars now, including a new main bar along its right side. (The first, closest to the indoor entrance, housed an impressive build-your-own Bloody Mary bar, a Starboard import, while the last bar, newly equipped with a draft beer system, sat comfortably in the back.)

With approximately 100 people comfortably on the deck — either seated for brunch (another Starboard addition on weekends) or mingling — I pulled up a seat at the new bar. There was a clear view of the flatscreen TV (a theme on the deck, where plenty of screens have been strategically placed), and my bartenders were quick to ask my order and check on refills. There isn't much more to wish for at a beach bar.

The draft beer selection struck a nice balance between craft and accessible. Of the eight choices ($5-$6), three were local (Heavy Seas' Loose Cannon, Union Craft Brewing's Duckpin and Flying Dog's Raging Bitch). It was also nice to see two excellent beers from Delaware's Dogfish Head (Namaste and 60 Minute IPA) on draft, too. The outliers (Samuel Adams Alpine Spring, Leinenkugel Summer Shandy and Blue Point Toasted Lager) spoke to the warm-weather vibe.

That vibe, so crucial at beach bars, was palpable at Nick's because of how inviting the deck feels. A good beach bar is conducive to breezy conversation among strangers, and I had no trouble finding common ground with my older barstool neighbors. We lamented the Orioles' recent skid, and appreciated the free-swinging bats of the Little League World Series.

As I sipped on a Ruby Red Grapefruit Crush ($7, made with Absolut Ruby Red vodka, triple sec, Sprite and grapefruit juice), a reggae quartet took the newly created stage in the corner of the deck. (It has stage lights and a plug-in soundboard, which shows the smart addition was a priority and not an afterthought.)

"None but ourselves can free our minds," the female singer smoothly sang as she performed Bob Marley and the Wailers' "Redemption Song."

At that moment, the beach seemed as distant as it had all summer, but it no longer felt like a concern.

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