Bars at malls don't have to try as hard. The venue doesn't expect them to, and neither does the clientele.
Unlike at destination bars, people just want a place to linger after shopping, a variation on a T.G.I. Friday's. Some light lagers, bright lights, maybe an arcade machine. It is the measure of a great bar to have ambitions that go beyond, and Punk's Backyard Grill steps up to the challenge.
This Westfield Annapolis mall bar and restaurant, celebrating its third anniversary this year, is casual to a fault — its premise is an indoors American cookout. But unlike many bars that close much later — Punk's closes at 10 p.m. on weekends — it has made a strong effort to adopt a craft approach for its bar. The beer list brims with above-average regional names, like Oliver Breweries, and the thought-out cocktail list impresses. The service also stands out.
Since it's sandwiched between a Macy's and a Lord & Taylor's, it would be easy to think of Punk's as another mall bar and grill. Punk's doesn't discourage that notion at first. In addition to table service, customers can order at the cashier, as at a Panera.
Punk's aesthetic, though, is not mainstream — it is designed to look, as its name implies, like the back of someone's house, where the grilling is done. The bar revolves around a ceiling-high live ficus and the dining area consists of patio furniture and beach umbrellas, and more plants. I hadn't seen this much vegetation inside a bar/restaurant outside Seacrets in Ocean City, which is like a small jungle. Punk's is a believable facsimile of someone's backyard, so that you can see smoke coming off the grill just a few feet behind the bar.
It is a novel concept for a bar, but still a concept — easily duplicated in different locations. In fact, Punk's owners, all savvy restaurateurs and graduates of Cornell University's highly regarded hotel school, have talked about making it a franchise.
The ingenuity of the indoor patio concept might wane if it starts popping up in different places. For now, there's just this one, and it is charming. Punk's is a model of how to do a concept bar right. It starts with backing their words with actions. Any bar owner could hire a consultant to pick beer brands that would look smart on a menu. Or, as is more commonplace, simply add a Flying Dog and a Dogfish Head and call the operation a craft beer bar.
Last year, co-owner Dave McCabe actually went looking for a brewer to collaborate on a beer. After a couple of Annapolis brew pubs turned him down, he found Oliver Breweries in Baltimore. Punk's and the brewers at Oliver's came up with an American IPA that was bittered with a piney variety of hops as well as Cascade hops. The name, Draft Punk, is a nod to the bar but also a play on innovative electronic duo Daft Punk.
Happy to see Oliver's on the draft menu, I ordered the Draft Punk, and it went nicely with my fish tacos, which were filling and covered in a melty guacamole ($5 and $12.99 for the beer and tacos, respectively).
Beyond this collaboration, the bar is a frequent destination for the kinds of events that make beer geeks hyperventilate. For its third anniversary party, it tapped nine beers from area breweries, including Stillwater Artisanal Ales and Brewer's Art. This demonstrates a commitment to craft beer that goes beyond just carrying the label.
The rest of the draft menu consists of 10 brands — including the new Flying Dog Wildeman, the excellent Stillwater Stateside Saison and Evolution Coffee Stout. The bar carries 40 beers by the bottle, divided into categories like Belgian-style and hoppy.
These days, it isn't enough to cater to craft-beer lovers, and Punk's has also taken care of craft cocktail fans. While it doesn't look as if Punk's makes its own bitters, the bartenders use fresh juices and unusual spirits — when a friend ordered a Boulevardier off-menu, for instance, the bartender, McCabe himself, suggested using Old Overholt, a distinguished rye ($14). The cocktail was a satisfying balance of flavors, but it was McCabe's touch that underscored Punk's quality service.
I left feeling just like I had after visiting Frisco Taphouse in Columbia. Frisco made me reconsider the strip mall bar. Punk's does the same for the mall bar.
Punk's Backyard Grill
Back story: Dave McCabe, Jeffrey Sloan and Sheila Laderberg opened Punk's three years ago at Westfield Annapolis with an eye toward re-creating a backyard cookout indoors. Over time, they've developed a strong craft mentality, last year going so far as to collaborate with Oliver Breweries on their own beer.
Signature drink: The Draft Punk beer, a collaboration with the Baltimore-based Oliver Breweries ($5). The draft beer list is 10 brands long and includes Evolution, Stillwater Ales and Flying Dog. There are also 40 brands by the bottle. Beers range in price, from $3.50 to $29. Ten cocktails, including takes on the Old- Fashioned and Applejack Sour, all $7 or $8 (off-menu drinks may be higher). All beer is $2 off during happy hour, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays.
Open: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Where: 2188 Annapolis Mall, Annapolis
Parking: It's a mall.
Contact: 410-571-7744; punksbackyardgrill.com