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Frugal fun

The Baltimore Sun

People tend not to change unless they have to. Right now, we're still going out, spending money and keeping the economy humming, maybe just a little more cautiously. But if things do get tougher, the time to start implementing good behaviors is right now. Some good habits have as much to do with maximizing your fun and budgeting your energy as they do pinching pennies. Adopting them will serve you well even in flush times. And if things do get worse, you'll be prepared.

The Baltimore weekend we've outlined tells how and where to spend a wise penny and save a foolish dollar. We especially looked for places where you'd feel good about spreading the wealth around, the kinds of stores, bars and venues that a thriving city depends on. Friday night will have you hopping, but Saturday night will let you settle in. We've found the perfect neighborhood for a Saturday stroll and some easily accessible destinations for Sunday exploring.

Friday night

Station North, Lower Charles Village

The best time to show up is just after 6 p.m., when the no-parking lanes reopen and most of the meters go off duty. This is also the perfect time to show up at the Club Charles. This notoriously hip bar can be intimidating, even obnoxious, at peak hours, but early in the evening, it's serene, and an excellent time to make friends with a bartender.

Instead of a full dinner, graze in the neighborhood. You can walk across Charles Street to Sofi's Crepes and for just $5, get a delicious (and protein-rich) peanut butter and chocolate crepe that will fill up your stomach. But skip the beverage for now. The $2 you save is the difference between a matinee and regular ticket at the Charles Theatre next door. Popcorn? That's too personal. I'd give it up, but it's a must-have for some people. What you must never do is take in your own.

Then, it's time to explore the emerging Station North district. Head up a few blocks to the versatile Wind-Up Space on North Avenue, which manages to be cool and unpretentious. If a good DJ is spinning and you get your own table, this could be your final stop of the night. If you're hungry again, walk across the street to Joe Squared for a nibble, or, if you want to keep moving, run into New York Fried Chicken at Charles and North Avenue for a quick and greasy chicken box.

Backtrack to your car and end the night with a short drive to the slightly off-kilter Kitty Kat Club. The crowd can look menacing, but they're not. Sometimes there's free food set out, kind of a potluck, but wait to be invited. Or, try upstairs at the Ottobar, where there's never a cover Friday nights. The management frequently stages fun events and parties in this accommodating bar/pool hall.

Saturday Morning and Afternoon

Hampden

This neighborhood of fascinating contrasts lends itself to leisurely exploration, either by yourself or with a friend. You can spend the whole afternoon on and off the Avenue (36th Street), not spend much money, and run into every other person you've ever known in Baltimore. Major hip points for Hampden: The vintage clothing store Dreamland, a Mount Vernon fixture for so many years, has opened on the Avenue; chic boutiques like the Shine Collective and Ma Petite Shoe are appealing, but there's still room for a gothic place like Sandy's, which sells unbranded coffee makers, glue traps and Hilary Duff dolls.

Think about coming here on the light rail and taking the Hampden Shuttle up to the Avenue. Start off with a $6.95 country breakfast at David's Restaurant & Deli, just off the Avenue. Every type of Hampdenite goes to David's, and the rough-looking staff is disarmingly nice. Then, step into the relocated Atomic Books, which now stocks an impressive art toy collection in addition to its printed matter. Browse for hours, but be sure to drop a few dollars, too.

Sustain yourself with a margarita happy hour at Holy Frijoles, which has recently started a Saturday happy hour, from noon to 3 p.m.

With attractions like 34th Street's holiday lights display (it should be up and running soon), you'll have no trouble filling an afternoon with trips on and off the Avenue. Driving through the display is fun but walking is much better. On your way, stop by Wholly Terra on Chestnut Street, a studio and shop run by super-nice stained-glass artist Steve Baker. It's just the kind of place you'll discover on foot.

Saturday Night

Highlandtown

Saturday night is when the regulars abandon their favorite hangouts to the once-a-week crowd. It's not a bad idea. It's a good night for staying home with a DVD, but also for taking in some inexpensive culture and trying something new.

The Creative Alliance at the Patterson has done admirable work involving the surrounding communities in its activities, and you'll feel good for supporting them. There are moderately priced performances (think $15) almost every Saturday night, and going there is fun, because it doubles as a kind of easygoing nightclub. The Creative Alliance's Web site recommends parking a block south of its building, alongside Patterson Park.

Come early for dinner in the neighborhood. Up just a few blocks is Chicken Rico, a simple and plain counter-service restaurant that serves incredibly inexpensive and delicious Peruvian chicken. For something a little more expensive and fancier, try Carlos O'Charlie's, a mammoth two-story restaurant, sports bar and pool hall that's popular with Highlandtown's emerging Latino community. Portions are huge here, and filling.

Then back to the Creative Alliance for a few hours of fun and a reasonably early evening. You'll be home in time for Saturday Night Live.

Sunday

Take advantage of Sunday's ease. There's less traffic on Sundays and more places to park for free. It's the best time to check out a new bar, like Flip's in Clipper Mill, which has a flat-screen television on its outdoor patio; the storied Mount Royal Tavern, which puts out free food; and the friendly Ibar on North Howard Street, where the group at the bar will buy you a shot if you convince them that the Ravens only scored because you walked in.

But every great Sunday starts at Baltimore's Farmers' Market, where people walk around with satisfied smiles. Every year seems to bring not only more beautiful stuff to buy but more to eat right there and then. This year's big addition has been Ethel and Ramone's, the Mount Washington Cajun and Creole restaurant, which is selling jambalaya, gumbo and the filling Cajun Breakfast Sandwich, spicily seasoned eggs and sausage on ciabatta.

Great walking weather is here, and Baltimore, with the Gwynns Falls and Jones Falls trails, is now a great urban hiking city. Get with it. An obvious late-fall picnic destination is Fort McHenry, with its waterside location. Combine this with a trip to Cross Street Market on South Charles Street, where Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood is open on Sundays until 7 p.m.

But check out Winans Meadow in Leakin Park (part of the Gwynns Falls Trail), where you'll find the stunning Sen. Benjamin Cardin Picnic Grove and Pavilion, and through Nov. 22, an outdoor sculpture exhibition, the seventh annual Art on the Gwynns Falls Trail.

weekend tips

* Eat at the bar. Be like Anthony Bourdain. It's easier to hold to a nibbling and grazing routine here. Once you've been seated in a dining room, you're much more likely to find yourself committing to a multicourse meal. Bars are perfect for a nibble-and-run, and you'll typically get better service at the bar, too.

* Don't spend money or time on parking. Paying for parking is galling, and endlessly searching for free spaces is a grating waste of time. Support places that validate your parking, and save hard-to-park-in neighborhoods like Federal Hill and Fells Point for weeknights.

* Bring your own. This is a big, obvious area of savings. Baltimore doesn't have the intense BYO culture that's rampant in Philadelphia, where the most exciting and adventurous new restaurants let you bring in your own wine. Iggies in Mount Vernon and Grano in Hampden are two notable exceptions, and the Wine Source in Hampden has the best reputation for sending customers out with the right bottle.

* Never pay an unexpected cover charge. Sure, if you're headed out dancing or to a jazz club, and it was in your budget, go ahead. But showing up to a place that usually doesn't but is tonight - that's time to turn around. Fortunately, Baltimore is a notorious anti-cover city.

* Whenever possible, let rich people subsidize your fun. Never pay more for something on a Saturday night than it costs on a Wednesday night. This mostly applies to the live events like the theater or the symphony, which (with some exceptions) charge higher prices on weekend nights. Let people who can afford higher-priced tickets pay for them.

* Stop drinking like a 20-something. Big and lovely cocktails aren't the worst deal in a bar (shooters are), but they are expensive and make price-comparison difficult. Learn how to drink like an adult. Find the least expensive name-brand liquor that makes you happy and stick to it. (A good Scotch, taken neat, is a great choice, because you can sip it for a long, long time.)

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