Food & Drink

Review: The Coral Wig Shines in Mt. Vernon

While it might be one of Baltimore’s darkest bars, the stylish Mt. Vernon spot is a beacon.
The Banana Hammock and Pink Snapper cocktails. —Photography by Scott Suchman

The power is not out at The Coral Wig. We know because music is emanating from the speakers that are…somewhere. We can’t see them, or much of anything else, not that it really matters.

While this might be one of Baltimore’s darkest bars, The Coral Wig is a beacon.

First, about that music. It’s not every day you’re greeted in a bar by a rousing rendition of “Ave Maria” on the sound system. In creating the concept for this stylish bar, located in Mt. Vernon’s Ulysses hotel, Lane Harlan and her musician husband, Matthew Pierce, were inspired by the clubs of 1980s-era Manila, close to where Harlan was born. As in their other establishments—Clavel, W.C. Harlan, and Fadensonnen—the drinks are first-rate and the vibe is all their own.

When we walked through the alley entrance into the bar on a sunny afternoon in August, it took a few minutes for our eyes to adjust. Candles dot the few tables, but drinkers of a certain age (ours) might have to use their phones to illuminate the menu. A black walnut bar and amber stained-glass windows accentuate the aesthetic.

The name comes from a piece of music that Pierce wrote based on an experience he had snorkeling in the Caribbean with Harlan. A school of squid stopped in front of his wife, and her long hair was floating around her, almost like a coral wig.

A fascinating lineup of cocktails, highlighted by a margarita unlike any other we’ve tried, makes drinking in the dark a joy. The Banana Hammock, made with Cimarron tequila blanco, banana, lime, MSG, and lined with Himalayan salt, is a tropical delight. The Painkiller is a clever combo of rhum agricole (a style of rum made from squeezed sugarcane juice) with Sichuan peppercorn, pineapple and orange, coconut cream, and nutmeg. It’s subtle at first but be forewarned: Drink two and you’ll understand its name. The Pink Snapper is the cutest-looking drink of the bunch. Combining Rhum Barbancourt with strawberry, lime, and Sansho peppercorn, it’s one of the sweetest drinks on the menu, but it’s not overpowering or off-putting.

The Coral Wig is not a beer bar, but beer—light or dark are the two choices—is available, along with a few wines. The most interesting part of the menu might be the “suggested spirits,” which include Haitian clairin (a sugarcane spirit), Caribbean cask Scotch from the U.K., and selections from Martinique, Jamaica, Brazil, and Guyana.

Fostering a sense of adventure, in some ways the place exerts a literary vibe. Among the patrons there when we visited was a person reading from a hardcover book (must be the young eyes), and another writing in a notebook, using an actual ink pen. The primary reason for patrons to whip out their phones was the flashlight function.

As we finished our last round, a beautiful Maria Callas aria filled the room. Walking outside into the late happy-hour sunshine, we could see the light.