The party could be heard, but not seen, and it made me want to enter even more.
At around 10 p.m. on a recent Saturday, I hit the buzzer on the gothic, unmarked door after a pull on the handle didn’t suffice. A woman holding a white notepad opened it to reveal a small area that served as a buffer from the rest of the bar. Live music and conversation could be heard, but then came the bummer: The Elk Room was full, and she’d text when spots became available.
Since opening in the former Ten Ten American Bistro space in early August, the Elk Room has been a source of intrigue in Baltimore nightlife. My visit confirmed what I had heard from others: The Elk Room is the latest bar to further push the city’s threshold of what customers are willing to pay for interesting and skillfully constructed cocktails in a luxurious setting.
How much did it push the threshold, exactly? Four cocktails on my visit came to $75.21 before tip, and we selected modestly. (We skipped the $23 Zombie and $50 French 95.) It’s another example that the Land of Pleasant Living, where many are satisfied with a $2 can of beer, has also become a city where a cocktail under $10 feels like a steal.
Before I could try the drinks, though, I headed across the courtyard to Tagliata, the Elk Room’s sister Italian restaurant that was also humming with activity. (The Elk Room has a self-imposed capacity of 60, designed to promote attentive service and a comfortable atmosphere, so be prepared to wait.) After 20 minutes or so, my phone buzzed, and it was time to finally see what the fuss was about.
A friend and I were led through the barely lit bar area, where each seat was filled, to a larger second room adorned with leather couches, beautiful rugs and intricately designed chandeliers. Manager Shaun Stewart, an imaginative bartender whose work I’ve enjoyed at Bar Liquorice and Gunther & Co., later said the goal of the decor is to feel as if you’re transported to a sophisticated scene from the early 1920s. It’s a gorgeous sight.
Looking around, I thought we received the best seats in the house: Victorian, egg-shaped chairs with plush burgundy interiors that wrap around your body. They provided a sense of privacy and intimacy between us. We both remarked that we wished we had them in our homes.
A first look at the Elk Room’s cocktail menu is a bit overwhelming. There are a dozen “signature” cocktails and another dozen “classics,” along with pages of selected spirits.
Easing into things, we started with the more familiar: a Manhattan ($16) and an off-the-menu old fashioned (the Old Pigtown is the listed house version, but my vegetarian companion steered clear because it included bacon). Both were immediate winners. The former, using a Rittenhouse Rye whiskey base, included equal parts of the high-quality vermouths Carpano Bianco (sweet, with vanilla notes) and Carpano Antica (slightly spicier like gingerbread).
The old fashioned ingredients were traditional — rye, bitters, Demerara sugar — but the top-shelf whiskey, the 10-year-aged Whistle Pig, elevated it entirely. This order, though, later had us scratching our heads. Our friendly server asked a whiskey preference, to which my friend replied, “Whatever the bartender prefers.” Without warning, the old fashioned became our most expensive drink at $21 — a realization that only came with the bill. It reminded me of the off-putting expression, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”
The second round increased the entertainment factor. The Poe’s Raven ($15) came with a showy, tableside presentation — the server removed a large, hand-cut ice cube from a mini plank and placed it inside a glass that had been smoked with cinnamon before pouring the concoction from a small bottle. The Bacardi 8-year rum melded with the smoked coconut and molasses, while the pineapple and star anise bitters added a nice balance. The Au Pair ($17) showed Templeton 4-year rye whiskey and pear liqueur are a match, and the vanilla-almond syrup added another layer of rich complexity.
These were excellent drinks — the type I’d point to as evidence that we don’t need to travel for premium, Instagram-worthy cocktails. And the Elk Room deserves credit for delivering an experience, where we saw a burlesque dancer work the room as local gypsy jazz musician Tomas Drgon provided a pleasant soundtrack.
But these prices: woof. Quality, care and thoughtfulness come at a cost, but this felt jarring. It feels like a gentrifying Baltimore inching toward a new normal. There’s a clear appetite for it, too — the Elk Room has been popular since it opened.
Like a meal at Charleston or a stay at the Four Seasons, the Elk Room feels tailored to the deepest-pocketed Harbor East crowd, or those looking to truly indulge with booze. So sure, it’s worth it — as long as your bank account says so.