2008 was a good year for the Baltimore bar scene

The Baltimore Sun

When I look back on all the openings and closings that happened last year, I'm still surprised.

Baltimore's bar scene really blossomed in 2008.

Now when I say "bars," I'm also counting lounges and art/live music spaces. It wasn't a good year for high-end clubs. But a bunch of funky new bars opened, and several older ones got major face-lifts. All in all, it was a good year for the city's bar and club scene.

If I had to pick two new neighborhood bars with the brightest futures, I'd go for the Hamilton Tavern and Bad Decisions. Sure, the Hamilton Tavern is loud and rambunctious and it can be hard to find a seat there - even on a weeknight. But that stretch of Harford Road desperately needed a spot like the Hamilton Tavern. No bar is perfect, but the Hamilton Tavern comes pretty darn close.

Bad Decisions has some of the wildest drinks you'll find in Baltimore. The decor isn't swanky, but it doesn't have to be. You go to a place like Bad Decisions to watch owner John Reusing come up with some funky new concoction. One minute he's setting something on fire and pouring it into a martini glass; another, he's mixing beer and mead. The best part? Reusing's specialty drinks don't cost you an arm and a leg.

For a while last year, it seemed like every bar in Federal Hill's main entertainment district got a do-over. Drifters morphed into the more polished Nobles. Mother's introduced a huge expansion called Mother's on the Alley. And McFaul's Pub, an extension of Ropewalk Tavern, opened next door on South Charles Street. It was like half the bar owners in Federal Hill tried to one-up one another.

Without a doubt, the award for 2008's strangest little saga goes to Palma and Dubai. Jon Han opened the megaclub Palma on the corner of Redwood and Calvert streets in midsummer. Then he debuted Dubai a block away.

Several other club owners had tried and failed to run clubs at these spots in the past, but Han was confident he would succeed. Cocky, even.

"I have no competition, no challenge," Han said at the time. "Everybody went against it, and I made it happen, and I did it and that makes me special."

Turns out, Han wasn't that special after all. Palma and Dubai unraveled in record time. Both closed in a matter of months, and somebody lost a boatload of money. Baltimoreans generally don't like large-scale, high-end, pretentious Washington clubs. And if we really want to go to one, we'll go to Washington. Han learned that the hard way.

As far as bar and club closings go, I think one of the spots people will miss the most is Baja Beach Club. Baja opened more than 15 years ago, in a time when downtown Baltimore looked and acted a good deal different.

Baja was a big, crazy club with incredibly cheap beer and a no-holds-barred party vibe. But as more chain stores and restaurants moved into downtown, the land value kept going up, until it didn't make sense for a megaclub to be on a downtown corner. I wonder if the neighboring Iguana Cantina will suffer the same fate in coming years.

This past year saw a new record for high-end lounging, too. Pur Lounge, the uber-fancy Boston Street hangout, introduced the $20 cover charge. That's right - it cost you $20 just to get in.

As I mentioned before, Baltimoreans don't take too kindly to high-end clubs. Well, they take even less kindly to cover charges. Pur's owners caught a lot of heat for that when they opened the club. But Pur is still alive and kicking, which is more than you can say for Palma and Dubai.

Last year was a big one for the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. A group of artists and musicians took over the Lo-Fi Social Club on North Charles Street, renovated and renamed it the Hexagon. Russell de Ocampo turned a clothing store into the Windup Space, a roughly 3,000-square-foot bar and lounge on North Avenue.

The Metro Gallery - one of the city's best up-and-coming art and live music spaces - got a liquor license and installed a bar. And when the Zodiac restaurant closed a couple of months ago, members of the acclaimed local arts and music collective Wham City started holding shows there. They have plenty of wild events planned for this year.

These are all great things for the fledgling neighborhood. But Station North still has a long way to go. I'd love to see more shops and art galleries open there, or anything that would encourage foot traffic on North Avenue. I'm excited to see what 2009 has in store for Station North - and the rest of the city's entertainment scene.

Bedrock closes

Bedrock, the large bar and lounge at 401 W. Baltimore St., closed last month.

Manager Sam Chaney said he butted heads with Bedrock's owners over the club's mission. Bedrock opened in 2006 as a billiards hall. When that didn't catch on, they opened it up to live music. But it's hard to be a live music club and keep a regular bar business at the same time.

When Chaney took over running Bedrock, he tried to bring in students from the nearby medical and law schools, as well as local businesspeople.

But you can't build up a post-work base if you're occasionally throwing concerts and charging a $10 cover. Bedrock was a little of both, which didn't work, Chaney said.

"If you're going to be a venue, commit to being a venue," Chaney said. "If you're going to be a bar, be a bar."

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