I've never seen anything like Illusions Magic Bar and Lounge.
With classic decor and live magic performances, this brand-new spot on South Charles Street looks like a high-end New York City club from the 1930s. I just wonder if the place, which opened this month, can sustain itself in Baltimore.
Owner Ken Horsman, who also operates the neighboring Ken Zo's Yogi Magic Mart, must have put $1 million into Illusions. His son Spencer, a magician who has traveled the world and has appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman, performs live every Friday and Saturday night.
"No one goes to this extent to make a really unique and unusual place," Horsman said. "You can drink at home for cheaper, so why would you want to come to our place? Because of the elegance. It's like an experience for you."
Illusions doesn't serve food and will never be a full restaurant, Horsman said. Eventually, it might start offering desserts, he said.
Though no beers are on tap, the first three bottles on the drink menu are, fittingly, Magic Hats #9, Circus Boy and Blind Faith. Each costs about $5, which is a little steep for Federal Hill, but I had no problem paying a couple extra bucks for a beer -- considering there was no cover charge. I might even pay a cover charge to get into a place like Illusions.
Almost every aspect of the decor is stunning. A giant cherry wood bar with a mahogany finish stretches down the left wall of the large front room. Iron chandeliers hang from the high ceiling, illuminating burgundy carpet, high-backed leather chairs and glass-topped tables decorated with playing cards.
There's a step up to the back room, which has leather couches and sofas, a towering 4,000-pound fountain and a pool table.
One of the only things I'd change is the neon digital jukebox, which hangs on the wall by the pool table. It looks way too modern and tacky and reminds you what century you're in. But decor-wise, that's the only misstep. Otherwise, Federal Hill has nothing that even comes close.
"I don't know what I put into it," Horsman said of the expense of starting Illusions. "I had to just stop, finally. I kept changing ideas, and I said, 'No, let's just open, and let's fine tune it. Let's get it open.'"
A man in a bunny suit stood outside Illusions when my girlfriend, Amie, and I first walked by on our way to dinner last week. The white rabbit waved at us from under the marquee and said, "Come inside!"
We were tempted (how often do you get an invitation from a giant bunny?) but hunger beat out curiosity, and we kept walking. I found out later that it was Horsman behind the mask.
"I'm not a bar owner," Horsman said. "We're entertainers. We want it to be an experience from the sidewalk in. It makes a big difference."
Illusions was filling up when we walked in shortly after 9 p.m. Friday. Horsman had changed out of the bunny suit and was making sure everything ran smoothly. A man sat near the back of the front room playing a piano and singing '70s rock and pop.
Soon after we sat down at one of the tables, a server took our drink orders. I don't know if she was new to the business or overly eager to please, but she checked up on us just about every 15 minutes. Our surprise and delight (considering most of the tables were full by 9:30 p.m., and sharp service is something you rarely see in this city) quickly faded to mild annoyance.
At 10 p.m., Spencer stood near the middle of the bar, where a chain hung from the ceiling, and started his magic routine. He randomly selected a woman from the crowd, had her pick a card from his deck, write her name on it (Lauren) and shuffled it back into the deck. Then, he had her fish it from his pockets several times. Note: Spencer may look a few days shy of 14, but he actually just turned 21.
Spencer asked for another female volunteer -- Kate, this time -- to help wrap him in a straitjacket. Then, as the Mission: Impossible theme played overhead, he hung upside down from the chain and escaped.
Later, he made the rounds at tables and performed card tricks up-close for people. It's worth a trip to Illusions just to see him.
I have nothing but the best wishes for Illusions. Substance certainly comes first there, and it drew a large crowd spanning a couple of generations last week. But Horsman is going to have to pack the place consistently to keep it afloat, and I wonder if he can.
"Everyone really seems to enjoy what we're doing," Horsman said. "We're so unique and so different. That's what Baltimore's about -- having uniqueness and difference. I think they're the ones that survive over the years."
Illusions Magic Bar and Lounge is at 1025 S. Charles St. The opening celebration is April 27 and will involve a crane, Horsman said. For more information, call 410-327-3966 or go to illusionsmagicbar.com.