Let's start with a confession: For years, I dodged Dundalk pubs.
I just didn't want to drive out there, review a place and come off as some know-nothing Baltimorean. So I stayed away, and Dundalk hulked in the distance.
Finally, I found the right tour guide, a Dundalk native named Joe, who offered to drive me deep into the heart of his hometown one Saturday night. It turned into a trip I'll never forget.
Joe, his friend Andy and I piled into Joe's old black Mazda (stick shift, of course), put on some Lynyrd Skynyrd and set out into the night. We burned down North Point Boulevard, blasting '70s rock with the windows down.
The Hard Yacht Cafe, tucked away at the end of curvy Cove Road, was our first stop. We walked out to the pavilion bar at one end of the cafe's large, wooden deck and got a couple cans of beer.
A few wooden signs fixed to the deck showed the distance to nearby destinations. One of them, painted black, said "Iraq" and had a stencil of a hand making an obscene gesture. Some kids were playing the "swing the metal ring on a string onto the metal hook on the wall" game (does it have a real name?), and a band was about to play at the other end of the deck. But we had a long night ahead of us and couldn't stay to see them play.
Hop's Inn was up next. It's possibly one of the most random but welcoming bars I've ever been to. Hop's sits in the middle of a residential section of Dundalk on Railway Avenue. A list of the buildings on this street would read: house, house, house, Hop's, house, house. A big sign out front advertised "Bud On Tap," as if it were some novel thing, and I wondered just how long it had been there.
Inside, portraits of every president since George Washington hung on wood-paneled walls. A pitcher of Michelob AmberBock only cost $6, and shots of glorious Johnny Walker Blue Label scotch were only $3. Yes, you read that right. Those shots normally sell for close to $20 each. Why were they so cheap? I have no idea. Nor did I care.
When we put "Sister Christian" by Night Ranger on the box, a few patrons started singing along, and I suddenly suspected no other place we'd visit that night would top Hop's. And none did.
Right up the street from Hop's sits a place that's roughly the same size called the Railway Inn. But the vibe was totally different. When we walked in, the bartender shot us one of those what-are-you-doing-here looks, asked us what we wanted and left us alone. What a buzz kill. We sat at the old, wooden bar and quietly sipped our $2.50 bottles of Bud.
The folks at Hop's were talkative and lively, but the few warm bodies in the Railway kept to themselves - with the possible exception of the couple next to us who loudly made out. I could hear their lips smacking from three stools down. We finished those beers in record time and high-tailed it out of there.
Our next stop, a corner bar on Holabird Avenue called Bill's Cafe, was less inviting than the Railway. The first thing we noticed when we walked in: It was bright. Too bright. The second thing: It smelled. Bill's Cafe was rather rank.
Budweiser drafts (there is no other option for real men in Bill's Cafe) were a buck each, which we loved. But we didn't even stay to finish our beers, because of the smell and an escalating argument between a man and woman across the bar.
We cringed, claimed we were "going out for a smoke" and bounced. We left three half-empty glass beer mugs on the bar, which I would normally consider a travesty, but these were desperate times.
Then came Howard's Deli and Pub, a legendary Dundalk fixture on Holabird Avenue known to some as the Sports Mecca.
The Howard's crowd was the youngest of any place we went that night. It also had one of the best beer selections. I wasn't a big fan of the new gray paint job, which made the place a little too light for a bar. But the bartenders were friendly, and the suds cold and crisp.
At the end of the night, we decided to head back to Hop's, where the bartender welcomed us with open arms and shots all around. It was hard to believe I'd only been there once.
On the way home, we stopped at Denny's for a late-night snack and reflected on our evening. In a few hours, we tasted the ups and downs of Dundalk's nightlife. I wondered why I was so intimidated in the first place. One thing's for sure: I'll be back soon for a bigger bite.
Read Sam Sessa's blog on nightlife and local music at baltimoresun.com/midnightsun