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Snake Hill earns reputation as early hit in Highlandtown

When partners Rich Pugh and Randy Coffren opened their bar, Snake Hill, in Highlandtown in mid-November, the duo expected to ease into the neighborhood, building a clientele over time through word of mouth. The neighborhood, however, did not feel like waiting.

"The response has been great. Unfortunately and fortunately at the same time, it's been really busy from the jump," Coffren, a Highlandtown resident, said. "I think the neighborhood was starving for it."

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Drawing strong crowds since opening, including a recent Saturday night visit, Snake Hill has quickly made a fantastic addition to a neighborhood that has its trusted stalwarts (The Laughing Pint and Venice Tavern, to name a couple) but needed a fresh face, too. It's a bar not looking to be pigeonholed for craft cocktails or an extensive beer list (though it has both), and Coffren said there are no current plans of ambitious expansion.

Instead, Snake Hill aims to serve its community, first and foremost.

"We just want to be a good neighborhood bar that has some longevity," Coffren, 32, said.

During my visit, approximately 35 people filled the one-level bar, making it comfortably crowded. Seats were hard to come by, but not impossible to snag. Still, there was enough room to stand and chat with a small group with minimal interference. Past the bar area were two community tables filled with young friends, laughing and eating bar snacks. (The overall crowd was a mix of ages, all seemingly equally at ease.)

I instantly loved Snake Hill's cool and casual aesthetic. The laidback attitude is built into the execution; with no servers, food and drink are ordered and picked up at the bar. (A note at the table asks patrons to bus their own tables, too, because "we're all in this little community together.") The walls are pretty bare, but a coin-operated fortune-telling machine and vintage knick-knacks add character to the room. The '80s pop-rock soundtrack felt right, too.

The space's finest design touch is the bar itself. The acrylic-finished, L-shaped bar is made up of thousands of Scrabble pieces, which Coffren said he and his staff spent 30 hours collectively gluing each individual letter tile. The care and patience needed to complete the project is obvious after one look, and the result is a sharp conversation starter.

Coffren had less to say about Snake Hill's bar program. He and Pugh are not the type to rigidly define their approach to stocking the bar, and instead say they're simply guided by what they like. In a time where every new bar or restaurant comes with an overwrought mission statement, this felt reflective of Snake Hill's easygoing charm.

Most important, the bar's selection was excellent. I counted a dozen beers on draft (with each tap handle represented by a billiard ball), 33 types of bottles and 36 different cans. Maryland breweries were represented, from the expected (The Brewer's Art, Union Craft Brewing) to pleasant surprises (Key Brewing's Rye Porter was on draft for $6). I chose the American brown ale ($6) from Baltimore's Monument City Brewing, a dark, malt-heavy brew that finishes smoothly.

The selection is also notable for its discerning nonlocal choices. Multiple bottles of San Francisco's 21st Amendment Brewery ($4.50-$7.50) were available, and so was excellent La Fin Du Monde ($8) by Unibroue. Plus, seeing a Flemish sour by Brouwerij Van Steenberge ($7.50) brewed for Monk's Cafe, one of my favorite bars in Philadelphia, is a quick way to earn my trust.

The beer selection (along with some red and white wines) would be enough to warrant a visit. Another reason? The deli-style sausage case offering a wide array of sausages — including vegan options — that are grilled behind the bar.

But Snake Hill also offers a rotating cast of house cocktails. Of the four offered this visit, the intriguing recipe of Benton's Old Fashioned ($10) caught my eye, with its bacon-infused Four Roses bourbon and use of maple syrup. My fears of an ultra-sweet cocktail subsided after the first sip, but were replaced with a question: Where's the bacon? The more I tasted the cocktail, however, the pork's saltiness became more pronounced, achieving a satisfying sweet-to-salty ratio. More than anything, I liked that they weren't throwing a basic Old Fashioned on the menu for the sake of it.

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As the night continued and some patrons left, new customers soon took their place. So far, Snake Hill continues to attract nearby residents, especially on weekends, Coffren said.

Looking back on 2006, when he bought his Highlandtown home, Coffren recalled realtors trying to paint the blue-collar neighborhood something it was not. They'd call it "North Canton," but Coffren shrugged it off. He likes his neighborhood's personality as is — hard-working with influences of diverse cultures — and wanted to create a bar that fit within it.

"I love Highlandtown," Coffren said. "It's just got some flavor."

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Highlandtown appears to love his bar back, and with good reason.

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