In an age when bars are becoming easier to define—dive, rustic, speakeasy—we cherish the ones that have defy categorization. For nearly 70 years, Club Charles (1724 N. Charles St.) has lived outside the box. That’s why its sudden closure announcement in late July via an unassuming black-and-white sign on its door and abrupt reopening earlier this month didn't really surprise us at all.
But the characteristic impulsivity of owner Joy Martin (whose mom, Esther, bought the bar in 1951) had us feeling like the bar's journey was unfinished—like a great conversation that gets disrupted by the bright lights of last call. For a couple of months, we mourned the charms and paradoxes of a place that always made us feel comfortable while still a little on edge. Club Charles is a bar where we can have an intimate conversation in the tiny room to the right of the bar or nearly get our head taken off by a trapeze artist up above.
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Sure, with its crimson hue, neon “Cocktails” sign, and Lynchian aesthetic, you could call it hipster. But it also feels like an everyman bar. You wouldn’t be surprised to run into just about anyone—your buttoned-up coworker, your neighbor, or whatever musician is playing the Ottobar that night. That being said, its list of celebrity patrons does seem to have a through-line: Iggy Pop, Johnny Depp, and, in particular, John Waters, who would make a fitting poster child.
We're relieved that it's open again to be a beacon after a long night, a harbor from the humidity of Artscape, a go-to Halloween spot where the bartenders’ costumes are a little too scary, an excuse to wax rhapsodic in its circular booths and, of course, a place to curate our own soundtrack on its fabled jukebox.
When we are inside Club Charles, time operates on its own scale. We are never really sure how many minutes or hours we spend under those dim red lights. But we're glad we get to spend a few more. For many years, a sign hung above the bar that proclaimed, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” We are just happy that this glorious ghost came back to life.
This story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Baltimore and has been updated since its print publication.