Best of Baltimore


The best bar games, karaoke and more

Bar Game: Skee Ball at Johnny Rad’s

Usually, our criteria for choosing a bar has more to do with its beer selection than its bar games. But we make an exception for Johnny Rad’s in Upper Fells and its two lanes of skee ball. The 50-cents-per-turn, amusement-park favorite is somehow even more fun when accompanied by a couple of brews and slices of gourmet pizza from its kitchen. (Imagine that!) We’re not the only ones who think so: Some enterprising ballers have formed the Baltimore Barskee League, which meets weekly at either Johnny Rad’s or Mother’s Federal Hill Grille, which also has the game. Last we heard, the league was accepting members, so we recommend you get on the ball—see what we did there?—and sign up. 2108 Eastern Avenue, 443-759-6464.

Bar Name: Tequila Mockingbird

There are usually some interesting contenders for this category. (We love that two of our favorites, Ale Mary’s and Bad Decisions, are right across the street from each other.) But we’ve always liked Tequila Mockingbird in north Ocean City. Not only is it a literary reference, but the name implies that you’ll have a hell of a time. While you won’t find any tributes to Atticus Finch at this Mexican cantina, they do have decent margaritas (ask for less sour mix), impeccable guacamole, and fried rockfish tacos. We enjoyed just sitting at the bar and chatting with the friendly staff, who, on a recent night, were having just as much fun as the patrons. 12919 Coastal Highway, Ocean City, 410-250-4424.

Beer Bar: Brewer’s Cask

Sure, there are some behemoth beer bars in this town, but we’re partial to the new kid on the block, Brewer’s Cask in Federal Hill. Channeling the beer-expertise of its former inhabitant Muggsy’s Mug House, Brewer’s Cask has a 20-line draft system and 50-plus bottles. We tried the newly debuted Flying Dog Disobedience, a dark, maple brew that went down smooth. There was also a deliciously hoppy Green Flash IPA and the perfect-for-summer Hell or High Watermelon Wheat Beer by 21st Amendment. The bar will soon feature firkins (cask-conditioned ales) on most Fridays. Plus, they have one of the best beer specials around: Everyday until 7:30 p.m., three 10-ounce beers are just $6. 1236 Light Street, 410-273-9377.

Bike-friendly ’Hood: Hampden

It’s funny to think that an activity that has been around since Queen Victoria is the transportation of the future, but biking is attracting more devotees every day, especially here in the city. According to Baltimore City bicycle and pedestrian planner Nate Evans, ridership is up 50 percent over the last three years and continues to grow. Neighborhoods are now racing to keep up with demand. Hampden was ahead of the curve, however, with one of the city’s first bike lanes (along The Avenue), plentiful bike racks, a great cycling shop (Twenty20 Cycling Company), and access to the Jones Falls Trail. “Hampden’s traditionally been a little more progressive,” Evans says. “It has a younger population. They were first on the bandwagon.” Make that bicycle.

’Burbs Bar: Towson’s Charles Village Pub & Patio

While we’d never say that the late-2010 kitchen fire that forced the renovation of Towson’s CVP was a good thing, there’s no denying that the restaurant/bar is better than ever since it reopened in April. With expanded indoor- and outdoor-dining spaces (including a rooftop deck!) and a refreshed menu of classic American and Maryland favorites, Towson’s favorite college bar has suddenly become a magnet for employee lunches, family dinners, and—with its 26 flat-screen TVs—game-day viewing parties. It feels lighter and brighter since the fire, and the friendly young servers all seem to have an extra spring in their steps. 19 W. Pennsylvania Avenue, Towson, 410-821-8155.

Cinderella Story: Loyola Greyhounds

Usually, when you think about local college sports, heavy hitters like Maryland and Hopkins come to mind. But this was the year of Loyola University. In March, animated coach Jimmy Patsos and the men’s basketball team made it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in nearly 20 years with their win over Fairfield University. A few months later, the men’s lacrosse team—which was unranked at the beginning of the year, yet was nearly flawless all season (18-1)—captured the first national championship in Loyola’s D-1 history with a whopping 9-3 victory over Maryland. The Greyhounds sent a clear message that they are ready to play with—and beat—the big boys.

Cocktail: Tequila Fresca at Clementine

Recently, Clementine’s bar manager Andy Tzortzinis pared down the restaurant’s book-long cocktail menu to about a dozen favorites. And we’re sure glad he kept the Tequila Fresca ($9.50), a wonderfully balanced concoction of tequila and two house-made simple syrups—a basil-lime and lemon-rosemary—all mixed, strained, and served in a martini glass. Unlike other tequila drinks, the Fresca doesn’t use something extremely tart or sour to counteract the liquor flavor, but, instead, mixes in its fragrant and fresh herbs (grown in their backyard garden, naturally). The result is a crisp, cool martini perfect for the summer months. 5402 Harford Road, 410-444-1497.

Dance Night: Two-For-Tuesday at the Ottobar

Thank goodness for the Ottobar. While other dance parties come and go in the blink of an eye, you can set your watch by the venerable Remington rock club’s Two-For-Tuesday. A rotating slate of DJs (Robbie Fearless of Lithuanian Hall fame, Ottobar co-owner Craig Boarman, and others) spin tunes upstairs ranging from New Wave (lots of Elvis Costello last time we went) to Top 40 (Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” was a crowd-pleaser) while the young, hip crowd fills up on one of the best drink specials in town: $4 for two-for-one domestic bottles and $4.50 for rail cocktails all night long. Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard Street, 410-662-0069.

Day Trip: Shepherdstown, WV

West Virginia likes to emphasize its “wild and wonderful” side to tourists, but it can also do “quiet and quaint.” Case in point: West Virginia’s oldest town, Shepherdstown, which is currently celebrating its 250th anniversary with ongoing events ranging from history lectures and concerts to festivals and photography exhibitions, all with an abundance of folksy Appalachian charm. But even if you hit on a day without a special event, you’ll still find plenty to do. The downtown is a cluster of well-preserved pre-Revolutionary War buildings with cute boutiques and tempting restaurants. The Potomac River, the Appalachian Trail, and the C&O Canal all run through town, and provide myriad recreational options. Best of all, at just 90-minutes each way, you can do all this and be home by bedtime.

Dog Park: Paw Point Dog Park at Robert E. Lee Park

It always seemed like the ultimate tease for dog owners to bring their pups to the sprawling Robert E. Lee Park only to have to keep them on the leash or face a fine. But hurrah! Those days are over: Last fall, a new one-acre enclosure opened in the Ruxton park, designated especially for your rambunctious Rover’s off-leash frolics. Best of all, the play area allows access to the Lake Roland reservoir so aquatic pooches can take the plunge when the dog days are taking their toll. Open year round from sunrise to sunset, the park is equipped with benches and bag dispensers for cleaning up waste and is accessed via a code-controlled, double-gated entrance. These creature comforts don’t come free though: Memberships are mandatory but a reasonable $35 per year covers two dogs per family. Robert E. Lee Park, 1000 Lakeside Drive.

Festival: Maryland Renaissance Festival

Hear ye, hear ye! We like the 36-year-old festival for many reasons. We like that it’s spread out over consecutive weekends from late August through October, giving attendees time to visit when their schedules (and the weather) are most agreeable. We like how it engages imaginatively with history. (Each year, the festival adopts a storyline from the reign of King Henry VIII.) And we love how committed both the performers and attendees are. All throughout the 27-acre festival grounds, you can see everyone from the festival’s 200-plus cast members to your high-school physics teacher kitted out in their best crushed-velvet costume. Performers display extraordinary feats running the gamut from jousting to sword-swallowing. There’s also a company of actors performing Shakespeare’s most popular plays, an arts-and-crafts village, and more turkey legs than a Thanksgiving Rockettes review. Crownsville, 800-296-7304.

Fitness Class: Boot Camp at Federal Hill Fitness

Losing weight is hard, and trying to make it easy just makes it more torturous. So cut to the chase and sign up for this month-long, three-times-a-week program run by personal trainer Reese Ashe. Most of the sessions are held outside, often in Federal Hill Park, and focus on building strength and stamina. It might not be the most fashionable workout around—or even the most fun—but it works. The regimen’s client-retention rate of 80 percent proves that. 39 E. Cross Street, 410-752-3004.

Karaoke: Midtown BBQ & Brew

We got worried when we heard that the former Midtown Yacht Club space was going to be turned into a barbecue joint. We hoped the new owners wouldn’t transform the once gloriously divey spot into a cheesy suburban-style restaurant. We were assured when we visited Midtown BBQ & Brew and realized not only could you still crack peanuts and throw the shells on the ground, but the no-frills attitude is even present in its Thursday-night karaoke. The weekly singing showcase starts promptly at 9 p.m. and is hosted by Brooke Abercrombie of High Note Entertainment. The sign-up process is super casual, and we’ve never had to wait longer than 15 minutes to perform. The night we went, we heard everything from Talking Heads and Dire Straights to Whitney Houston and Matchbox 20. 15 E. Centre Street, 443-835-2472.

New Bar: The Fork & Wrench

When The Fork & Wrench opened in March, everyone dubbed it the “less-expensive Woodberry Kitchen.” Like its fancier counterpart, the kitchen has a farm-to-table philosophy, the décor is rustic, and the spot has a bar scene all its own. There are throwback signature cocktails like the Brass Tacks—a winning combination of Pikesville Rye, ginger simple syrup, soda, and their house-brandied cherries (macerating in Mason jars on the bar). If cocktails aren’t your thing, they have excellent local drafts like Heavy Seas Peg Leg and Stillwater Cellar Door, as well as 25 bottles and cans. The vibe is very agricultural-chic with tin ceilings, vintage colanders, and reupholstered love seats. The place is still working out the kinks, but we were told there could soon be a late-night happy hour, which seems like the perfect time to enjoy this dimly lit, ultra-hip space. 2322 Boston Street, 443-759-9360.

Nightlife Startup: BeerGivr

BeerGivr definitely makes us wonder, “Why didn’t we think of that?” This tech startup, founded and developed in Baltimore, allows friends to buy each other drinks even when they can’t be together. It’s pretty simple: Let’s say a friend is going out for his birthday, but you can’t make it. Go onto BeerGivr’s website, enter your friend’s phone number and a message, and your friend will receive a text with a barcode. The bartender scans your friend’s phone and, voila, hands him a drink (which, incidentally, doesn’t have to be beer). Currently, the technology is available at 20 bars and restaurants around Baltimore, from Alewife to Racers Cafe, but founder Sean Kennedy of Canton hopes to keep expanding the list. Cheers!

Oriole: Adam Jones

There are tons of reasons to love Adam Jones: His bubble-blowing and pie-throwing personality; the fact that he leads the Orioles in home runs, RBIs, and on-base percentage; and he’s been a huge role model for black youth, working with the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, and helping to revive baseball in Baltimore’s inner city. But, most of all, we love the fact that he committed to spend the next several years in an Orioles uniform. In what was the largest contract in Orioles history, Jones signed an extension for six years worth $85.5 million. And we happen to think he’s worth every penny.

Pool: Otterbein Swim Club

Tucked away under I-95, adjacent to Federal Hill, and in the shadow of the stadiums, is the cozy Otterbein Swim Club. While it’s not an immense swimming space, it’s all that its downtown families (and the occasional retired couple) need. Most nights, members can be found cooking dinner on grills and playing with their kids on the pirate-themed playground. Special weekend events include a live performance by local band Milkshake. The same staff has been there for years, so there’s a community feel to the pool. But, because of its limited size and popular amenities, the current waitlist extends into 2013. In the meantime, befriend a member and go as a guest—admission is only $4 per adult and $2 per kid on weekdays. 824 S. Sharp Street, 410-837-7946.

Raven: Haloti Ngata

Sure, we knew the defensive tackle from Oregon that we drafted in 2006 was huge—6-foot-4 and 345 pounds, to be precise. But, little did we know that he’d become the cornerstone of our already immaculate defense. If it seems like Haloti Ngata is sometimes in many places at once, it’s because he is. Coaches have no problem sliding him from the defensive tackle spot to nose tackle or defensive end. His fierceness on the field contrasts with his softer side In the locker room, where he can be seen playing cornhole or dancing to The Temptations. But, no doubt he’ll be all business next season when he’ll be more relied upon due to Terrell Suggs’s injury. He knows the future of our defense rests on his giant shoulders.

Speaker Series: Ignite Baltimore

Other lecture series attract bigger names, but none is as consistently vibrant as Ignite Baltimore, held twice a year at MICA’s Brown Center. Each confab allots five minutes a piece to 16 speakers ranging from artists to politicians, and, accompanied by a slideshow, allows them to pontificate on any subject of their choosing. Past talks have touched on everything from sexuality (“Why I Switched Teams” by Heather Holland) to assimilating Gen Y into the workplace (“71 Million Americans Say Your Cubicle is Stupid” by Greg Dekker). Results are sometimes moving, often funny, and always engaging. The next Ignite is scheduled for October. See you there.

Theme Night: Beer & Bacon Happy Hour at Bad Decisions

The current fetishisation of bacon finds it apotheosis in this popular night of carnivorous cuisine. Begun as a happy hour three years ago, word quickly spread, and now each monthly installment at this Fells Point watering hole lasts all night and draws around 200 people. Specially designed food and drink menus offer everything from crustacean swine avocado (two marinated avocado halves stuffed with lobster and bacon) to roasted-pineapple-and-bacon daiquiris. “If you ask for something vegetarian on bacon night, you are maybe going to get heckled out of the bar,” laughs owner John Reusing. 1928 Fleet Street, 410-979-5161.