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The Elk Room's exclusive allure, quality cocktails come at a price Baltimore isn't quite used to

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.

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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.

At Baltimore bars like Upstairs at the Elephant and the Elk Room, the speakeasy influence can be felt in different ways, from the ambience and design to cocktails and marketing.

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.”

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I wasn’t prepared to be swept off my feet by Tagliata in Harbor East.

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.

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