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Paulie Gee's back bar graduates from best-kept secret status

You'd be forgiven for overlooking the back bar at Paulie Gee's.

With a couple of eye-catching, wood-burning ovens located in the center of the Hampden restaurant, acting as its beating heart, it's easy to stick to the front half and its plentiful seating. Neapolitan-style pizza is the main draw here, and it's hard to blame anyone for wanting a ringside seat.

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But more than a year after Paulie Gee's opened, my friends and I often head directly to the unassuming back room with hopes of settling in by the bar. Sometimes, especially in the past six months or so, seats at nearby tables are the best we can do — a sign that even the back bar's profile has graduated from "best-kept secret" status.

As it should. After an opening last summer that had been anticipated for years, Paulie Gee's has settled into the neighborhood nicely by providing a reliably high-quality culinary experience in an unfussy, shorts-and-T-shirts setting. That extends to the bar, which is the best way to indulge here.

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The setting certainly plays a factor. Plastic trophies, the type given at the end of recreational bowling seasons, line the wood-paneled walls. In one corner, there's a mounted deer head; in another are tapestries depicting dogs playing poker and pool. There were a couple of TVs positioned by the bar, but on a recent Saturday night, they were left off, and no one seemed to mind.

Taken as a whole, the room has the look and feel of a VFW hall. It works, too, because the appeal of pizza and drinks — regardless of the quality of ingredients or the chicness of the neighborhood — is low stakes and, in the case of Paulie Gee's, high rewards. It is proof a satisfying night out can come without utensils.

The chewy, slightly charred pizzas came with hype, thanks to the reputation of the original Paulie Gee's in New York, and delivered on expectations. But the bar program deserves credit, too, for its ability to complement the food, while standing on its own. The cocktails are worth a visit alone themselves.

There are flights of fortified wines, picklebacks and craft-beer selections, but it'll take you a while to work through the cocktail list ($7-$13), which is where we focused. It offered 17 drinks, ranging from classics like an Aviation and Boulevardier to modern mouthfuls like Feel Good Hit of the Summer and Oh My God, I Can't Believe I Shot Bill Murray.

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Perhaps it was the "Zombieland" reference or the menu's printed warning of "Limit 2 per customer," but we couldn't resist the latter. Like a relic from the golden era of tiki cocktails, the Bill Murray layered sweet notes (pineapple, lime, Velvet Falernum) upon dry, herbal ones (absinthe, sherry), with the over-proof rum and oolong tea-infused reposado tequila balancing out the alcoholic backbone. It's a strong drink — hence the limit — not short on confidence.

Other cocktails were less complicated, but effective and charming in their own right.

The mezcal-and-Green Hat Gin-based Beachlark Motel was bright and acidic, subtlety bolstered by agave and cardamom bitters. The Hedge Hog — composed of lemongrass-infused tequila, black tea-infused vermouth and a blackberry shrub sweetener — felt refreshingly light on a humid evening. The Beefeater-gin negroni was a textbook definition.

Paulie Gee's Hampden, a franchise of the original Paulie Gee's in Brooklyn, N.Y., opened in July, specializing in wood-fired, Neapolitan-influenced pizzas.

Our two bartenders worked the room, which had around 40 customers, with a quiet efficiency that was easy to appreciate. Drinks and pies arrived quickly and without fanfare.

This unpretentious vibe serves Paulie Gee's well, with its winning elements adding up to a greater sum than its parts. They've re-imagined the former Hampden Republican Club building in smart ways, like allowing the back bar to forge its own identity in recent months. (In late June, the back bar debuted its own Instagram page, where followers receive updates on live music acts and happy hour deals.)

The promise of good pizza got us through the doors, and it's still enough of a reason to visit. But the back bar's come-as-you-are attitude and high-level execution are why Paulie Gee's has quietly become a staple of Hampden nightlife.

Paulie Gee’s

Back story: Originally a pizzeria in Brooklyn, N.Y., the Hampden version opened after years of delays in June 2016. While it is rightfully known for its wide range of pizza, its back bar churns out stellar cocktails in a low-stress environment.

Parking: Metered parking on the street

Handicap accessibility: Accessible via wheelchair

Signature drink: The tiki-inspired Oh My God, I Can't Believe I Shot Bill Murray ($13) packs a rum-and-tequila punch.

Where: 3535 Chestnut Ave., Hampden

Contact: 410-889-1048; pauliegee.com/hampden

Open: 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday; 3 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday; 3-10 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday

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