Food & Drink

25 Best Bars: Old Gems

Old gems and new favorites. Plus the 10 top craft-beer havens & where bartenders like to drink.

An Poitin Stil

By 7:15 p.m., An
Poitin Stil’s parking lot is filled. Inside, happy hour is bleeding into
a bender. Four small groups of officemates are spread throughout The
Stil, that rarest of breed, a county establishment that feels more bar
than restaurant. Not that it lacks tasty fare. The Stil offers Irish
classics like fish and chips and stew. Behind the eight-sided main bar,
conversation varies from shop talk to gossip as the Harps flow. Outside
on the heated “paddy ’o,” more white collars lean on the semi-circular
bar, sipping suds while a duo plays familiar classic rock tunes. It’s 9
p.m. now, and comments like, “You want a Jäger bomb?” and “What’s your
favorite kind of underwear?” are overheard. Tomorrow should be an
interesting workday, assuming everyone makes it into the office. 2323
York Road, 410-560-7900,

The Brewer’s Art

Mt. Vernon
up to The Brewer’s Art, and you’re faced with a decision. Head through
the double doors into the foyer of the grand row house-turned-restaurant
or descend the stairs to the dim and grimy wine cellar-turned-bar.
You’ll be happy either way—the upstairs exudes elegance, with dark wood
molding and marble fireplaces. When you feel like late-night drinks,
downstairs is the perfect hangout with its cozy corner tables carved
with initials. But what we have to mention is the beer. Six tap handles,
some handmade by brewers, signal what’s on draft for the night: a
roughly hewn cross for their famous abbey brown ale Resurrection, a hand
throwing up metal horns for their devilish, Belgian-style Ozzy (a
signed, black-and-white image of the star himself sits behind the bar),
and so on. All suds are brewed on-site, but if beer’s not your thing
(we’ll let it slide), extensive wine and whiskey lists are sure to
quench your thirst. 1106 N. Charles Street, 410-547-9310,

Cat’s Eye Pub

Fells Point
into Cat’s Eye Pub, and you’ll be welcomed with open arms—or at least a
handshake across the bar from co-owner Tony Cushing Jr. A family-owned
Baltimore staple for more than 35 years, the bar has a steady group of
regulars and tourists on pilgrimage. (It made All About Beer’s list of
125 places to have a beer before you die.) The dive’s eclectic décor has
influences Irish, maritime, and downright random. (An upside-down
Christmas tree hangs from the ceiling.) Talented bands and a
come-as-you-are vibe distinguish this pub from its neighbors. There’s
live music every night (one particularly awesome blues band improvised
lyrics about an O’s game) and the front bar is crowded with dancers.
Move to the back room or patio for laid-back conversation with a crowd
diverse in age and style. You’ll find no pretense here, just genuine
people looking to have a good time. 1730 Thames Street, 410-276-9866,

The Club Charles

Station North
you might have heard about The Club Charles, it’s probably true. Yes,
it can be cliquish and dripping with hipster attitude—what do you want?
Matt Porterfield hangs out here!—but it also has low drink prices and
very competent bartenders. The music alone could keep you there for
hours, crafting your own playlist that includes the Cocteau Twins, James
Brown, The Velvet Underground, and The Jesus Lizard. The place is
really, really red, but that only adds to the den-of-iniquity vibe. It’s
got two bars and several retro-looking booths and cubbies. The kitchen
next door pumps out tasty burgers and pizza, and if you’re drinking on a
budget, it’s hard to beat $2.75 for a PBR and $4.30 for a pint of
Guinness. Sure, The Club Charles is not the easiest place to make new
friends, but that shouldn’t matter since you’ll probably run into
someone you know. 1724 N. Charles Street, 410-727-8815,

Curb Shoppe Bar & Grill

Mt. Washington
in such tight proximity at the Curb Shoppe that the cops on one side of
the bar can almost certainly hear the conversation about drugs that two
men and a woman are having on the other. (It doesn’t help that these
three appear to have been on their stools for quite some time, and as
such, they’re pretty much shouting.) Neither group cares. It’s comfort
not conflict that has kept the Curb Shoppe around all these years. It
serves sandwiches on white, wheat, or rye—a practice, like the place
itself, that’s seems timeless. If you’re not craving a plate of the Curb
Shoppe’s classic burger bites or gravy fries—not likely—help yourself
to a basket of pretzels on the bar. The beer is cold, the drinks are
strong, and maybe the only proof that it’s 2012 and not 1982 is the
constant parade of people walking outside to smoke. 5736 Falls Road,

Duda’s Tavern

Fells Point
has come a long way from its mid-century origins as a shot-and-beer
bar, a gathering place—and occasional boarding house—for ship captains
and seafaring men. Now operated by the third generation of the Duda
family, the attractively renovated tavern, at the corner of Bond and
Thames, is a comfortable spot to enjoy a Resurrection draft, some
complimentary peanuts, and a really delicious crab cake on a soft
brioche roll. Weeknight and happy-hour specials provide more reasons to
visit Duda’s and enjoy the ’80s music, pleasing draft selection, and
sports shown on three TVs. In warm weather, the crowd spills onto the
sidewalk, where a handful of tables offer a cafe feel. 1600 Thames
Street, 410-276-9719,

Frazier’s on the Avenue

pouring a glass of red wine, filled to the brim, our bartender asks us
not for cash or a credit card, but for our names. We’re at the smaller
of Frazier’s two bars (the one in the room with a single pool table)
and, even though we’re the only people here he doesn’t know, he treats
us like we’re regulars. We will be soon. The sum of its nuances makes
Frazier’s special—the flavorful salsa served with the potato skins, the
wide wooden bar with a step on which to rest your feet and a ledge for
your elbows, and the welcoming people on both sides of it. After
splitting two salmon cakes and a delicious plate of fries, we order a
nightcap. Our driver asks if she can get a half glass of wine. “Sure,”
the bartender says. You get the feeling that he rarely says “no.” He
starts pouring, looks up smiling, and says, “Just say when.” 919 W. 36th
Street, 410-662-4914

Howard’s Subway

July of 1946, Oscar Howard Sensibaugh and his wife, Ruby, bought a
house on Hammonds Ferry Road and opened a bar in the basement. The
underground location begat its enigmatic name: Subway. Four generations
of Sensibaughs have worked the bar since, and honor Howard’s creation.
It is a monument to what a basement bar should look like—a precise
mixture of Formica, wood paneling, tile and terrazzo floors, red-leather
stools, and amber wall sconces. Judy the bartender scolds a customer
for using profanity, and he sheepishly apologizes. At a corner booth,
five young men share a pitcher of beer. The double doors to the kitchen
swing open and Karen Sensibaugh carries a tray of loudly sizzling New
York strip steaks. As she runs to the table, smoke trails behind her,
and when she sets the metal platters down, the men applaud and cheer. As
they eat, a mouthwatering aroma fills the room, and several patrons ask
to see menus. 711 N. Hammonds Ferry Road, 410-789-6609

Jennings Cafe

Cafe feels a lot like your uncle’s knotty-pine clubroom, and even the
regulars will welcome you like a long-lost cousin.
Family-owned-and-operated since 1958, Jennings is a comfortable spot to
have a few beers and watch the game with the guys, but it’s wholesome
enough to bring the kids for dinner, even complete with a children’s
menu that includes spaghetti, hot dogs, and chicken tenders—plus, plenty
of choices for grownups. Try the popular crab cakes, soft crabs, and
shrimp salad with a side of cucumber and onions, lovingly prepared by
the matriarch herself, Mrs. Jennings. With a subtle horse-racing theme
referencing its roots, and waitresses who just might pull up a chair and
shoot the breeze while you eat, Jennings has a comfortably dated feel.
The only modern element might be the clever addition of Fat Tire ale to
the tap array. 808 Frederick Road, 410-744-3824,

Johnny Dee’s Lounge

in the lower level of the Loch Ridge Shopping Center, Johnny Dee’s
Lounge is literally a hideaway. Walk through the unassuming doors and be
transported to another time. This isn’t your grandfather’s lounge,
unless your grandfather was very hip. The main room is filled with
enough vintage mid-century modern furniture to make the set designers of
Mad Men weep. If you don’t want to sit in the lounge, try to get a seat
at the bar. Its “L” shape, with nine black leather stools crowded
around it, makes it ideal for chatting up strangers or drinking with a
friend. If you want a beer, go ahead and order one of the 20 bottled
brands in stock. But there’s something about the place that just makes
you want a cocktail—a classic martini, Manhattan, or Tom Collins.
Bartenders Joan, Tiffany, and Henry pour 30 years of combined experience
into every drink. Small plaques bearing the names of good customers
line the walls—they can’t be purchased, they must be earned. And there’s
no better time to start. 1705 Amuskai Road, 410-665-7000

The Judge’s Bench Pub

Ellicott City
a city where our favorite bars are around the corner, driving 20
minutes down the road seems unnecessary. That is, until we visit The
Judge’s Bench Pub in Ellicott City. Located right on quaint Main Street,
the stone building bedazzled with white Christmas lights gives off an
immediately warm feeling. We plop down on two open bar stools and notice
a diverse array of beer taps hanging from the ceiling and marvel at how
the bartender, Carrie, seems to know everyone’s back story. “How’s the
new job?” she’ll ask. “Did you get a haircut?” Though we’re not
regulars, she’s sweet as can be as we order a beer flight (four 4-ounce
pours) including Ommegang Abbey, Heavy Seas Great Pumpkin, Stoudts
Achluophobia, and a Weyerbacher Heresy stout. Without missing a beat,
she assures us that the Stoudts isn’t too strong, and only clocks in at
4.8 percent ABV. Rumors are this place is haunted (like most of Ellicott
City), but we can’t help but feel a sense of total comfort, and we’re
not the only ones. “That’s what happens,” says a middle-aged man next to
us. “You come in here for one drink and, before you know it, they’re
closing down.” 8385 Main Street, 410-465-3497,


Mt. Vernon
one seems to remember the name of the first bar at the corner of Tyson
Street and Park Avenue, or how long it had been there. But in 1957 it
was called Leon’s, and Leon’s was the first “gay-friendly” bar in
Baltimore. So, to Charm City’s gay community, it’s hallowed ground. On
Sunday nights, the place is packed and fun. Patrons, all male, are
spilling out the front door onto the sidewalk. Inside, Ben the bartender
works the oval bar, quickly serving two-for-one, happy-hour drinks.
It’s a dark, low-ceilinged place, and techno music blares from the
speakers without overwhelming the conversations. There is no uniform:
Denim is as prevalent as leather; Orioles and Ravens jerseys are both
represented; and men in Polo shirts sit next to men wearing no shirts at
all. Hugs and kisses get exchanged when walking in, even if you walked
out just a minute before. Some patrons are obviously alone, but no one
looks lonely. And maybe that’s all anyone should ask of any bar, gay or
straight. 870 Park Avenue, 410-539-4993,

Muir’s Tavern

South Baltimore
was a time when Fort Avenue was lined with family-owned bars—perhaps as
many as 30 between Race Street and Fort McHenry. South Baltimore’s
locals bought drinks from their neighbors in places called Cox’s,
Hartlove’s, and Henry’s. Today those names are nothing but memories,
only Muir’s remains. It’s a Formstone castle at the corner of Marshall
Street and Fort Avenue with a classic Baltimore pedigree. It was founded
in 1944 by Roland Muir, a tugboat captain, who ran the place and lived
upstairs. His son, Roland Jr. took over in 1968, but not before he
worked 23 years as a longshoreman and 18 years for the National Brewing
Company. Inside, it’s pure Baltimore: There’s a framed portrait of
Johnny Unitas on the wall, the Natty Boh signage dates back to when it
was actually made here, and red neon light bathes everything. The bar
fills up on a Friday afternoon and Roland Jr. sits at a back table with
his nephew, Tom, the third-generation Muir at the helm. They clink two
beer cans together and toast the approach of the seventh decade. 36 E.
Fort Avenue, 410-385-0344