For staples in the Baltimore nightlife scene, there is a thin line between comfortable and stagnant. The good bar owners are keenly aware of this and can anticipate the right time to make changes that will invigorate an establishment without offending loyal patrons.
In 2009, 15 years after it opened, Mount Vernon's City Cafe underwent a sleek renovation that brought an attractive and modern aesthetic with it. Co-owners Bruce Bodie and Gino Cardinale were happy with the new look, but not content, as proven by the December unveiling of City Bar at City Cafe, another renovation that alters the cafe's identity without overhauling it. (Case-in-point: City Cafe has rededicated itself to coffee and espresso, says Cardinale. For the past two years, coffee was not served after 6 p.m., but post-renovation, City Bar now serves alcohol and coffee during all hours of operation. Coffee can still be purchased for carry-out, too.)
This most recent change felt smart on a recent Friday night. It was the type of winter weather that encouraged staying put at one bar rather than ping-ponging around a neighborhood. The frigid weather worked to City Bar's favor, since the renovated main area now feels less like an indeterminate coffeeshop with counter service and more like a comfortable, clearly defined bar.
At the bar, all but one of the 10 seats were occupied. So we stood along the fringe, which indicated the first sign of comfort: Contentment. This new bar area, softly illuminated by five hanging light fixtures and two flatscreen TVs, felt welcoming and already familiar. We were unconcerned with patrons exiting and the open seats left in their departures. As has always been the case at City Cafe, there was no sense of urgency to rush or leave.
Good drinks will have that effect, too. The opening of City Bar comes with a new signature cocktail menu (all items are $11 each) that utilizes small-batch, harder-to-find liquors. Our favorite of the night was the New Fangled, one of City Bar's most popular new cocktails, according to Cardinale.
The first sip gave way why, as the Maker's Mark bourbon was sweetened, but not overpowered, by orange citrus from the Original Combier triple sec and cherry from Luxardo Maraschino liqueur. The ingredients read boldly on paper, but together they were clean and soothing.
Two other new cocktails were cleverly constructed, but lacked the cohesive pleasantness of the New Fangled. The fragrant Clear as a Bell uses Hudson New York Corn Whiskey, a small-batch clear whiskey that doubles as a signifier of discerning taste behind the bar. The problem was the alcohol's richness overtook the cocktail's other ingredients — Lillet Blanc, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao and Peychaud's Bitters.
The Mule 2.0 is City Bar's reimagining of a Moscow Mule, the traditional cocktail of vodka, ginger beer and lime juice often served in a copper mug. For its take, City Bar swaps vodka for Dorothy Parker American Gin, a small-batch spirit by the New York Distilling Co. The excellent Fever-Tree ginger beer is mixed in, as is lime juice and homemade ginger and rosemary syrups. Unfortunately, the gin was hardly detectable, and the component we tasted most was ginger beer.
Even if a few pours were slightly off, we walked away complimenting our two easy-going and diligent bartenders. It's always nice to see consistency in cocktail making, and both employees made sure small details were not ignored. For example, lemon peels were not simply garnished like a star atop a Christmas tree, but they were rubbed around the entire rim. These practices are not always noticed, but it is important they are never forgotten, and City Bar's staff seemed aware of this.
The timing of City Bar at City Cafe makes complete sense, given the expanding landscape and raised expectations of the Baltimore nightlife scene in recent years. It has fine service, thoughtful cocktails and a nice draft list of 10 options (only nine were available on our visit, and selections included Rogue Ales' Chocolate Stout, Boulevard Brewing's Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale and the local Duckpin Pale Ale from Union Craft Brewing). Nearly two decades after its opening, City Cafe continues to combat staleness by deftly changing with the times, simply because that is what good owners do.
Back story: The counter-service area of City Cafe's original coffeehouse finished months-long renovations in December and reopened as a 10-seat bar with a new signature cocktail menu. The other bar in the middle of the restaurant still exists, too, but the new area has more space and additional draft lines.
Parking: Complimentary valet parking on Friday and Saturday nights and free, three-hour self-parking at a nearby lot on weekend afternoons and weeknights after 6 p.m. There's also metered parking on the streets.
Signature drink: The New Fangled ($11) is worth a visit. It's made with Maker's Mark bourbon, Original Combier, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur and house-made bitters.