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Mother's Federal Hill Grille renovates just enough

Since opening in 1997, Mother's Federal Hill Grille has earned the type of reputation sports bars envy. Whether it is a party outside on the popular "Purple Patio" before a Ravens game or friends grabbing drinks on their way to Oriole Park, Mother's marks a spot fans can count on to regularly produce the right gameday atmosphere.

But in Baltimore, well-worn reputations tend to overshadow nuances, which co-owner Dave Rather believed happened to Mother's over the years.

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"We get pigeonholed as a rowdy Ravens bar, but we have a scratch kitchen and we wanted to emphasize it more," Rather told The Baltimore Sun earlier this year.

So he, along with his brother and Mother's other owner, Adam Rather, set out to change that perception by renovating the main dining area and front bar — the two sections patrons first see upon entering. The two-month process (during the renovations, Mother's was closed for lunch on Tuesdays and Wednesdays) led to an expanded dining room, a new bar top and draft-beer system, new tables around the bar and, most noticeably, a modest outdoor patio on South Charles Street with new floor-to-ceiling windows and retractable doors.

Based on recent visits, the changes, overall, felt subtle but necessary, especially since Mother's had begun to look a bit dated compared to newer neighbors like Cowboys and Rednecks and Banditos. The updated dining room, sprinkled with content-looking diners, seemed appropriately separate from the other bar areas. It was easy to imagine the new patio resembling Ryleigh's Oyster's own often-crowded patio on a sunny day. If ownership wanted Mother's, or at least the front of it, to feel more like a restaurant, then mission accomplished.

But since I leave food to the gastronomical experts, my reason for visiting Mother's on a couple of recent weekends was the flipside of the equation. If Mother's wants to be more known for its dining, would the rest of the bar — the aspect so many South Baltimore residents have long associated with the veteran establishment — suffer?

The short answer is no. The cosmetic upgrades make Mother's appear more like a mullet than ever — serious up front with a party in the back. But at its core, it remains the same sports bar.

That's not a bad thing. As a former Federal Hill resident and 20-something not put off by the neighborhood's reputation for raging, I have seen up close why it has remained a popular party spot.

However, my first Saturday trip was lackluster due to an intense rainstorm that seemed to keep most people on the couch. The quiet night — no one in the back by 10:30 p.m., but around 25 in the front, mostly looking to stay or get dry — allowed me to test the bar.

Post-renovations, Mother's has eight additional beers on tap to bring the total to 20. On Facebook, Mother's touts a focus on Maryland craft beer, which is an overstatement. Of the 20 rotating options ($4-$7.50), seven were brewed in Maryland, including beers by Flying Dog Brewery, The Brewer's Art, Heavy Seas Beer and Union Craft Brewing. For a true "focus," I need more than half to be local, but it's a start.

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One week later, Mother's looked more like the Mother's I knew, even as the poor weather lingered. This time, friends and I headed straight to the back bar. Just before midnight, patrons were trying in earnest to turn a slow night into something more.

A full-on game of beer pong took place in the middle of the dance floor — never a good sign — while young women tried to use the space for its intended purposes. The DJ did his part, playing snippets of popular songs across genres like rap, electronic dance music, Top 40 and more. Even I tried to raise the room's energy level when Fetty Wap's "My Way" came on, to little avail. A round of Fireball shots ($6 a piece) helped us feel looser, but it was no magic potion. Our night failed to ignite like the bottle's slogan advertises.

That's just how it goes sometimes, particularly during one of the wettest recorded months in city history. Between the smaller group in the front of Mother's and the back-bar crowd, there were more than 100 people inside by 12:30 a.m. Some Baltimore bars would love to attract a crowd that size, but here, it felt light.

In the end, it mattered little, as there will likely be plenty of busy nights in the near future. What's worth noting is Mother's remains Mother's — a bar with dance music, ample space and bartenders with their heads on swivels. TVs are everywhere, as is seating, so it still checks the vital boxes for sports fans, too.

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