I'm not so sure about Shanta.
Red Maple started hosting this multicultural dance party some years back, bringing in belly dancers, hookahs and drummers every Wednesday night. It sounded exciting, and several of my friends highly recommended it as a way to stir up a dull weeknight.
But a couple weeks ago, Shanta took plenty of time to warm up. Granted, it was cold outside, and there was some snow on the ground. Still, I expected more people -- especially since Shanta will soon be expanding to other clubs like Mosaic and Kamp.
Shanta officially starts at 10 p.m. My roommate Jeremy and I showed up soon afterward. We scored a free metered parking spot on Charles Street a block away from the venue and saw a handful of other open spots on the walk up. Gotta love Wednesday nights. On Fridays, finding that kind of parking is like winning a (small) jackpot.
Any euphoria from the free parking was quickly sobered by Red Maple's $10 cover charge. When it's packed and popping, Red Maple is one of the city's few high-end lounges worth a $10 cover. Fire pits, comfy cushion seating, tasteful dark wood decor and a spot-on sound system make it one of the city's most sharp, impressive destinations. But paying $10 on a weeknight for a mostly empty club is a little maddening.
That's how we felt when we walked in and saw only a few people at the bar and a number of unoccupied tables. A promoter assured us the place is usually fuller and gets wild about 11 p.m. or midnight. Maybe it does. Our night was not a good example.
To start off, we walked up to a counter in the front room and ordered a mango hookah. It cost a whopping $15.75, including tax. That's the most I've paid for a hookah in Baltimore. Of course, at Red Maple, we expected to pay more. My friends and I recently coughed up $20 for a hookah in a fancy Washington lounge -- but the service was twice as sharp and the hookah came with an extra coal, which made it last twice as long.
Our hookah at Red Maple was missing part of its mouthpiece, which meant we had to pull twice as hard to get a decent amount of smoke. We sat at one of the tables marked "Reserved," which we were told was reserved for people who wanted to sit and smoke or eat -- not one specific party. We waited a few minutes for a server, then when no one came, Jeremy decided to order some wine at the bar. Two glasses of decent shiraz cost $14.
We sat, smoked, drank and watched people. A belly dancer gyrated around the bar area while an excellent DJ seamlessly blended Middle Eastern beats. The music was set at a perfect volume, and more people started trickling in.
Red Maple's dress code (no athletic wear, casual sneakers, oversized T-shirts, flip-flops, baseball caps, work boots) makes people fix up and look sharp. With that comes some pretension and a see-and-be-seen feel. Red Maple's biggest downside is that it knows it's good. But when you want to really step out in Baltimore on a Friday or Saturday night, it's always one of the best spots to hit.
The night we were there, more people were arriving at 11:30 p.m., but the place was still only about a third full. Red Maple can do better than that -- even on a Wednesday.
Shanta comes to Red Maple at 10 p.m. Wednesdays. Red Maple is at 930 N. Charles St. Cover is $10, and hookahs are $15.75. For more information about Shanta, call 410-547-0149 or go to shanta.com. The venue: 930redmaple.com.