Walking up the few stairs to the Bluebird Cocktail Room's porch on a recent Friday night, I smirked at my group of friends.
"You're going to like this place," I said, my confidence high based on a couple of recent visits.
A doorman with a notepad, though, stopped us before the entrance. The 105-seat bar was full, and he'd have to let us know when space became available. Apparently, I was not alone in wanting to show off one of Hampden's best new bars in years.
The secret — located inconspicuously on the third floor of a Hickory Avenue building — was, in fact, never much of a secret at all. Opened in early July, the Bluebird Cocktail Room is a hit that has quickly exceeded owner Paul Benkert's expectations, and for good reason. With a meticulous eye for detail, his staff crafts memorable cocktails with high-quality ingredients in a handsome, instantly inviting space.
Benkert's background partially explains the high-minded approach — he met Bluebird bar manager Ben Poole while the two worked at nearby Woodberry Kitchen, where Benkert was once bar manager. Just as Woodberry can be particular about its processes, Benkert applies similar care.
Take the ice, for example — an afterthought at most bars, but a fundamental ingredient at Bluebird, according to Benkert. It's why he carves out single servings from a 300-pound ice block at an exhausting clip (Bluebird uses 4,000 pounds of ice monthly strictly for cocktails, he said). A machine removes impurities from the ice, resulting in a noticeably clear cube and ultimately, a cleaner cocktail. But Benkert said he's motivated by the aesthetic presentation as much as the taste. The ice makes a drink feel luxurious, he said.
When Benkert first told me about the ice in May, I wondered if he was overstating its role. But after a few visits, I'm sold. If regular ice is standard-definition TV, Bluebird's is a 4K picture. This doesn't mean every bar needs a fancy ice machine, but Benkert has raised the bar around here for serious cocktailing.
While Benkert honed his skills at Woodberry, he's clever enough to make Bluebird wholly his own. The bar is inspired by the romanticism of the Lost Generation and authors like Ernest Hemingway and onetime Baltimorean F. Scott Fitzgerald, from the vintage decor details and deep royal blue paint job to classic cocktails like the gin rickey and the mint julep. It's probably too ostentatious for some, but this former English major admires Bluebird for wearing its penchants on its sleeves.
Yet much of this is fluff if the drinks don't sing. That's not a problem for Bluebird, where I've walked away consistently impressed by the cocktails. (There's also a modest, curated selection of wines and beer.)
Relatively straightforward, the old-fashioned ($11) — made with Old Grand-Dad 100-proof bonded bourbon, simple syrup from demerara sugar, and house-made bitters — had a remarkably velvety finish because of a few drops of vanilla extract added at the end. It's the type of trick you remember for future home-mixing.
There was also the Pig Island ($11), a tiki cocktail made with house-made bacon syrup and pineapple rum, created in-house by marinating the fruit's pulp in Bacardi silver. Garnished with bacon crumbles and poured over crushed ice, it's a refreshing and bright drink for those still savoring the end of summer, while showing Bluebird can pull off whimsical, too.
The bar has learned lessons over the first few months, though. There's the Shibui Highball ($19), a risky experiment that ultimately didn't work. The quality of the Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky from Japan led to its eye-popping price, but the format — a simple mix of seltzer and the spirit, garnished with lemon — never made sense. I wanted to better explore and identify the nuances of the spirit, but the dilution made it too difficult. The whiskey tasted good, but $19 good? Not really. Most liked it, Benkert said, but enough didn't see what the big deal was, so it won't be on the fall menu debuting in a few weeks.
That sort of flexibility should be commended, because there's no sense in forcing a nearly $20 mixed drink. Besides, Bluebird is fine without it, offering more reasonably priced cocktails and a strong happy hour — which, in my mind, is the best time to go (5 p.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, all day Sunday-Monday). The happy hour Pimm's Cup ($5), with its fresh cucumber slices as a garnish, is a steal.
At happy hour, you have a better chance at receiving the cocktail experience Benkert intended, with the staff explaining cocktails and helpfully guiding orders. At night, especially on weekends, it's been too busy for that type of specialized service. The drinks were still good, but context-less. A centralized ordering system at the bar was designed to bring order and protocol to the process, but when it's crowded, it leads to an amorphous line of customers and confusion regarding where orders should be placed.
Benkert said he's committed to the ordering system — and the bar's forgoing of traditional servers for food-and-drink runners instead — but kinks are still being worked out.
It's another consequence of Bluebird's immediate popularity. The system works better with fewer guests, but so far, that point has been moot on weekends. The staff deserves credit, though — all the employees I've seen were working hard and efficiently.
The Hampden area is known for its great restaurants, but the success of the Bluebird shows how hungry locals were for a great cocktail bar. No longer simply tasked with launching a new concept, Benkert and his team have been forced to figure out how to maintain their standards for service and execution amid high-traffic volume. So far, they're succeeding.
The Bluebird Cocktail Room
Backstory: Named after a Charles Bukowski poem, the Bluebird Cocktail Room opened in Hampden in early July. Owned by former Woodberry Kitchen bar manager Paul Benkert and wife, Caroline Benkert, the bar serves cocktails, wine and beer (along with bar fare) in a Lost Generation-inspired setting.
Parking: Free and metered on nearby streets
Handicap accessible: No
Signature drink: The bar's old fashioned ($11) has a traditional recipe, but uses a few drops of vanilla extract to add a smooth finish.
Where: 3600 Hickory Ave. (third floor), Hampden
Contact: 667-303-3263; thebluebirdbaltimore.com
Open: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. daily
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