J.A. Murphy's Tavern has some big shoes to fill.
Lulu's Off Broadway closed in December 2007, and its building sat vacant until owners Joel Anthony Gallant (J.A., for short) and Keith Murphy took it over a couple of months ago.
Murphy and Gallant kept the vintage back bar but redid the rest of the place. Lulu's, the comfortably cluttered, welcoming neighborhood staple, is now the plain, open J.A. Murphy's - named after its owners.
Rather than make it an Irish pub or a sports bar, Gallant and Murphy decided to keep an open mind with their tavern and see where their clientele takes them.
"We call it a bar about nothing," Murphy said. "No themes. Everyone's welcome. It's the sandbox mentality."
This strategy can be a boon or a bust for J.A. Murphy's. Yes, it might attract the average bar-goer looking for a drink with friends. But there are plenty of other notable bars just a few blocks away. Max's Taphouse has 70-something beers on tap and hundreds more in bottles. The Cat's Eye Pub has some of the best live music of any Baltimore bar. Without a hook, J.A. Murphy's might not bring enough patrons to stay afloat.
There are about 10 beers on tap at J.A. Murphy's, including Harpoon, Samuel Adams and Samuel Adams Winter Lager. Since Murphy is originally from Boston (and still has a thick accent), I ordered a regular Samuel Adams, which cost $2.50. I didn't finish it though - when I got near the bottom of the glass, I noticed sediment floating in the beer. Yuck! I'm not sure whether it was a dirty glass or clogged tap lines. Whatever the problem is, it needs to be fixed, pronto.
One pleasant surprise about J.A. Murphy's was the patio out back. I didn't know Lulu's had a patio, and I'm glad Gallant and Murphy are going to fix it up. They installed speakers out there and plan to build an outside bar when the weather warms up. That's a solid idea, especially considering that too few Fells Point bars have areas where customers can smoke and drink at the same time.
Since J.A. Murphy's is finding its footing, I didn't expect to see much decor. In the coming months, Murphy wants to take black-and-white photos of his customers and hang them on the walls. That's not a novel idea, but it might make the bar more personable.
Really, the best way to make a bar personable is to have a friendly staff. To that end, J.A. Murphy's is a success. I was impressed with the bartender, who made me feel at home, even though it was my first time there.
On the food front, J.A. Murphy's has a short menu of bar staples such as salads and sandwiches. They're reasonably priced and come in smaller portions - an interesting idea, considering the recession.
"In this economy, it's not feasible for myself or anyone to spend $50 for a dinner and a drink with their significant other," Murphy said. "Raising the prices for food is the last thing on my mind."
These days, it's tough to make long-term predictions when it comes to bars. But I think if Gallant and Murphy listen to their customers and make decisions based on what they want, this tavern has a better chance than most new bars.
So is J.A. Murphy's something special? Not yet. But given plenty of time and the right guidance, it could be.
if you go
J.A. Murphy's Tavern is at 1703 Aliceanna St. Hours are 4 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 2 p.m.-2 a.m. Fridays, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturdays and 11 a.m.-12:30 a.m. Sundays.