Eating at Balls without watching a game is like going to the movies just for a tub of popcorn. The food just isn't that memorable. But before an Orioles game or on a Sunday afternoon during football season, it's hard to top this sports bar -- for atmosphere.
Balls is like a theme-park for jocks. I've seen more elaborate places with actual batting cages and basketball hoops for customers to use. But Balls delivers what matters most -- 26 televisions. The biggest screen stands 10 feet high and can be seen by people on all three floors. The bar has the capability of showing 10 different sporting events at once.
Located a few blocks north of Camden Yards, the building was gutted in 1987 to carry through the sports theme. Portions of the second and third floors were cut away to create an atrium for the giant projection screen, and dark green mesh, reminiscent of a batter's backstop, used as a railing. We liked the soccer ball-shaped menu and the painted wall mural of Johnny Unitas with the words, "Baltimore will always remember the golden arm." From the third-story windows, the building's turn-of-the-century residents used to watch merchant ships pull into the harbor. So what if that view now is blocked by the Hyatt across the street. From certain windows, sports fans can gaze at the vista of Camden Yards and, for some, that's even better.
This month, Balls plans to start serving steamed crabs on the third-floor deck, bringing together two of Baltimore's favorite pastimes -- baseball and blue crabs.
About an hour before an Orioles home game, Balls was packed. It was crunch time, bottom of the ninth, as far as the restaurant staff was concerned. So we understood when it took a few minutes for our table to be cleared, and a few more for silverware to catch up with our appetizers. The first thing we noticed on our table was a bottle of pourable French's mustard. Keep in mind, this is not a Dijon sort of place. This is a place that serves a "ball park jumbo dog" with chili.
Fried foods were the night's most valuable players. Jalapeno poppers were perfectly crisp on the outside and filled with molten cream cheese. The batter-dipped peppers were great dipped in salsa. One of my companions remembered that the onion rings were a good pick, and he was right. These were fat slices, and they arrived hot and not at all greasy. Best of all was the chicken tender platter, served with fries. The chicken was moist, the breading not too heavy, the portion big.
It's hard to run a sports bar without offering Buffalo wings, the most ubiquitous of appetizers. The ones we tried were lukewarm and a little limp, as if they had been reheated. Two tired pieces of celery and thin blue cheese dressing were served on the plate.
They weren't the only problem. Maryland crab soup tasted like a canned version doctored with spice. There was too much lemon in the Caesar salad dressing, and too much dressing on the salad. A burger ordered medium arrived close to rare. The corned beef was lean but didn't have that authentic deli taste.
But does it matter? Do people come to Balls for the food? They certainly don't come for anything sweet, we learned, as the bar cleared of fans heading to Camden Yards. We asked our waitress for a dessert menu just as the televisions were turned up for the game. "We don't have dessert," she deadpanned. "We have beer."
Where: 200 W. Pratt St.
Hours: Monday through Friday, 4 p.m.-2 a.m. when the Orioles are out of town, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. when they play at home; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.
Credit cards accepted: Visa, MasterCard, American Express
Non-smoking section? Yes
Call: (410) 659-5844