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November 3, 2009

What makes Baltimore's nightlife scene so special?

Hoffman'sAll day, I've been exchanging Twitter messages with a Baltimore nightlife pessimist.

This pessimist doesn't believe Baltimore's bar and club scene has anything -- besides an excellent local music community -- that you couldn't get in other cities.

But Baltimore is cheap, I wrote, and though Baltimore doesn't have many high-end lounges, it has plenty of charming, quirky corner bars.

Corner bars are in every city, the pessimist shot back. This irritated me, but also got me thinking. What, after all, is so special about Baltimore's bar scene? ...

I think it's not just one thing, it's many things. I love how, when you go out looking for an adventure in this city, you usually find one. Does that happen in other cities? Probably, but I don't how regularly.

I haven't lived in many cities, and I haven't drank in enough bars nationwide to make any broad generalizations. But I will say this: There are some awesomely bizarre (and genuinely awesome) bars in Baltimore. And the strangers you meet and friends you make here can be incredibly colorful. 

Does any of this make sense? Am I on the right track here? Or is Baltimore's bar scene just like everywhere else?

(Baltimore Sun archive photo)

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Posted by Sam Sessa at 1:48 PM | | Comments (39)
Categories: Bars & Clubs


the people. i never fail to meet someone completely cool and interesting when i am out (no matter which neighborhood). everyone's generally nice, doesn't care what you do/who you know, etc...

when i was flying to glasgow once i asked the guy sitting next to me what it was like and he simply said "by the time your halfway done with your pint, you'll more often than not be best friends with the guy next to you". It certainly turned out to be true, and i kind of think of baltimore like that.

of course there are exceptions, but i think overall it's what i like most.

Less douchebags / douchegirls per capita

The problem with Baltimore is really just people like this guy on Twitter. Having lunch at PF Chang's when you have every other option available downtown? Really into poker and tennis? Maybe Baltimore isn't right for him if he's excited about proximity to O.C. It took me a while to get into the Baltimore scene, but it's never been boring, cookie-cutter, predictable... then again, I guess some people prefer that.

A friend of mine moved here from Georgetown. He said in DC, within 30 seconds of meeting someone, they want to know what you do and what kind of car you drive.

In Baltimore, all they want to know is what you drink and how you think the Ravens will do this year.

could'nt have said it better myself Ted!

It almost seems like the premise is backwards. This is the first time I've ever heard anyone ask, 'What can you get here that you can't get anywhere else?'. Usually, its 'What do other cities have that we don't?'

The Chop has always answered that in a word... "Nothing".

Whatever it is that you love can be found right here, whether its really asinine things like poker and tennis, or a great bar scene.

The best of our bar scene though is the layering. There's not one monolithic 'bar scene' that is good or bad, but there are several smaller bar circuits and aesthetics from which the drinker can pick and choose, traveling seamlessly from one to another.

For instance, People who live in Federal Hill tend to believe that its the center of the earth. Kids at Towson need to organize bus trips just to go south of northern parkway. Folks who hear live music at Power Plant Live seldom walk across the street to Sonar.

This is the problem.

The best thing about Baltimore nightlife is that if you really want to go all-out, you could easily in one night visit hipster bars, yuppie bars, jazz and blues bars, college bars, gay bars, strip clubs, corner bars, hotel bars and dance clubs.

If this guy fails to see that, then either his expectations are too damn high or he's not trying hard enough.

My issue with Baltimore is the absurdly early hour at which it shuts down and all the crap you have to deal with as a result of that. There is no reason why anything should close before 3am. [holy moly], make that 4am. there's that, and how bars use this bar-time [hoo-ha]. they call last call at 1:30 and then turn on the lights at 1:31.

It's unreasonable, it's pointless, it's uncivilized. Every bar pours out onto the street with irritated drunks, [peeved] off that they just blew money on a pitcher they can't finish, or [peeved] off that the hottie they were taling to is actually not the looker they thought. then everyone's outside, in the cold, in the rain, smoking, you name it, just waiting for some magical after hours to occur. Let's say it's a lucky night and you can hit up one of the various wharehouses, or a friends apt for a few. that's ok. but usually it ends with a trip to nam kang, hot tomatos, or blue moon. also ok. but here's the real kicker. How many times, weekend in, and weekend out, is that going to suffice. And i do mean suffice. Because it doesn't satisfy in the same way that if there were an unlimited number of bars, clubs, galleries, and cool events.

Even if you didn't, and couldn't possibly go to all of them, it's just the options that people need. For example. Halloween, North of the living dead. every venue on the elbow of charles st. to north avenue, metro gallery to joe^2 had an event. not only that, but a free event. and because of daylight savings had an extra hour. No one could have made it to everything but to have another place to go to after the next place is a real adventure. And the added hour ensured full return on drunken revenue.

This poor pessimist isn't going to know what hit him when he reads the comments... poor, young, new to cynicism gent. The thing that makes Baltimore Bar's great is that (for the most part) the people drinking in them don't take themselves too seriously. Ted certainly said it best.

Unless you challenge our seriousness about drinking and THEN you'll be in a world of hurt, young whippersnapper!

well, i can tell you this. i lived in new england for 10 years mostly around providence and boston. the people there are A*******S. i've been around nyc enough to know that i hate it there for multiple reasons.

i moved down here not knowing a goddamn person and in the first year of living here, i had more fun than the entire 10 years i lived up there. i've been here for three years and i am constantly meeting new people and seeing old friends everywhere i go. i'm not going to overanalyze it, but this city has a certain kind of magic to it, and the people are generally friendly, good natured, quirky, acceptant and looking to have fun.

My remark earlier was not intended to cause anger. I think it’s really cool that you passionately bring out things about Baltimore that make it unique. I don’t have a problem with Baltimore, and my time living here has been a very good experience. If I saw myself living in a big city for the next 5-10 years of my life, then my goal would be to live in NYC. NYC’s culture, night-life, and corner bars aren’t even in the same league. It wouldn’t even be a fair comparison. Maybe I’m a little bit spoiled, but I do have two brothers who live in Manhattan so I’d like to think I’m not completely full of it. That being said, I believe the extent of how much one enjoys where they live depends mostly on what they make of their situation.

If anyone wants to “put me on the cross” because Baltimore is not my favorite destination on the planet then that is their prerogative. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

OH and thank you "Annie" for the good laugh, I understand why people protect their tweets now. I feel immature responding, but what the heck this is really funny. First, thank you for taking the “Ocean City” reference and blowing it completely out of proportion.

Second, sorry I’m “boring and cookie-cutter” because I ate at P.F Chang’s today for lunch today. Regardless of my opinions on the place, I think it’s important to note that it’s within walking distance from where I work. So actually “ANNIE P” no I don’t always have the ability to eat lunch anywhere in the city on any given day. You might understand one day if you ever have a full-time job.

But seriously, when you were a child did P.F Chang's steal your lunch money or something?

I don't know if we have one thing that makes us unique. But I have lived in a lot of places in this country and I feel like the people of Baltimore, for the most part, don't take themselves too seriously. Or at least with a little bitty teeny tiny grain of salt. Even when it comes to things like the Colts or politics. The people of Baltimore seem to be sensible people who enjoy a drink and some banter. What more could you want from a bar?

Shankman I agree with many of your points. I was distracted responding to the random attack on me by "Annie", but I was also going to mention the 2a.m issue. To me a city literally shutting down at 2a.m is BEYOND ridiculous. It just isn't acceptable. I won't go into the fights that seem to rage across the streets of Baltimore at 2:00 a.m, but I will say that it is very childish and sad.

I've experienced the night life in all sorts of cities from NYC to Laguna Beach, from Philadelphia to Chicago, from Atlanta to Nashville, from DC to Morgantown, WV.

Baltimore has a little more of this one thing that makes it different from all the rest.

What is it? It says it in the city's famous nickname. We've known it all along.

It's... Charm.

I agree with peter. Don't over-analyze it. Don't cheapen it's ethereal quality with descriptive parameters. You either feel it or you don't.

The thing I've noticed is whenever myself or other local yokels that I know would invite friends in from out of town for a weekend they always have a blast. I think that says a lot.

What makes Baltimore a great city is the number of people who are natives. That is often hard to find in cities such as NY, LA, Vegas, Miami, etc. It is those people that make the neighborhood and corner bars so great.

On B-more nightlife scene. .38s are Special

Hey! I like tennis!

It's cause its cheap, dirty and dangerous, and I mean all those in good context. Plus, as someone pointed out, you are never really defined by what you do or how much money you make in Baltimore.

Part of what makes Baltimore special—from an arts scene and music scene and bar scene—is the "Let's put on a show" nature of the city. There's a sense that with a few people and a little effort you can make a watering hole/lantern parade/poetry slam/burlesque performance/Snuggie bar crawl/whatever happen. There aren't a lot of gatekeepers, bureaucracies or dollar signs (with the exception of the liquor license process) between the thought and the action. If you want to do it, you can.

I love what BaltBabs said because it's so true, "What makes Baltimore a great city is the number of people who are natives. That is often hard to find in cities such as NY, LA, Vegas, Miami, etc. It is those people that make the neighborhood and corner bars so great."

Three words: Shirley's Honey Hole.

As th unofficial tie-breaker, Greg's comment wins. All other answers to life's most important questions may be found here:

If you love baltimore, you might want to follow this guy.

He seems to be on a roll.

It's the shoes. It's got to be the shoes.

As a native Baltimorean who has lived all over the country and now is located in DC (only to be close to the job), I have to agree with Ted most of all the posts. I bring my DC friends up to Baltimore all the time and they prefer it to DC by a wide margin.

The people in Baltimore are laid back and the bars reflect that. In DC, people seem to hold back more when they go out and dont open up. I love coming up to Baltimore because I still feel at home here even though I live somewhere else. Baltimore makes everyone feel welcome and at home.

I think whether or not you enjoy the nightlife in Baltimore depends heavily on what you're looking for out of "nightlife." I think if you're into drinking, hanging out, and meeting interesting people, there are a lot of great places for that in Baltimore.

However, if you go out more for dancing (especially if you're into more indie/britpop stuff than PowerPlant Live type clubbing), you'll probably have a better time in DC. Not a knock on Baltimore, just an observation since I've been to lots of these club nights in both cities. Yes, it's way more expensive in DC (though since I don't drink much, it doesn't bother me as much as it understandably bothers others). But I do tend to spend hours just standing around at the Baltimore nights, whereas in DC people seem more into the dance parties. I think it just depends on what you personally prefer.

in washingon dc, it's not only the opposite gender that asks you "what do you do", "where do you live", "you don't own
a home yet, or only own a condo", or "you only live
in the suburbs", or "you still drive that car"? it's
everyone. If I am sounding too generalized than so be it.
There is a mostly transparent, hollow, superficial, and pretentious energy in Washington DC. I grew up near there
and prefer living close to Baltimore. In the so-called
young professionals areas in Federal Hill by Cross Street
or Canton Street, you might find the same transplants, that
you find in DC asking that what do you do. How this came
to be a question is pathetic. Our media and society has
a lot to do with it. It's as if people take pride in being
so "career-minded" and all that other bs like a bunch of rats.
Baltimore has so many friendly people if you don't look so hard. It was voted the most underrated city in America
for a reason. I think a lot of us prefer it that way. I don't care whether it's working class, or this class, or that
class. There are so many bars, pubs, lounges, restaurants,
parks, museums, diners, all the great festivals, attractions, and all the rest that
make this city so charming. Harbor East in a not-so-pretentious way as added a new dimension to Baltimore but I don't think it's phony at all. Fells Point, Mt. Vernon, and Hampden, and many other neighorboods all have great places where the people may be prideful and a bit territorial of their neighborhood or city, but are also very inviting. cheers!

....still waiting for johnnycat to chime in.....

Yeah, I think the "put on a show!" comment is probably the most right on. Otherwise, Baltimore has what other cities have. Nice people, cheap drinks, etc...It is not unique. Certainly DC and NYC have the fetishistic achievement mentality but that's only parts of those cities. There's plenty of neighborhood bars with people who don't give a [whoopie] there too.

Just enough ultra-lounges to keep those people away from me.

Just enough ultra-lounges to keep those people away from me.

Oops. Didn't know you couldn't swear although I suppose I should have guessed.

Here you go Cardwell. I'll preface this with the fact that I actually like Baltimore. I don't however think it offers much in the way of nightlife though. I can't tell you how many times I've gone to a bar at 1 a.m. only to find it either closing or already closed, and hear the following line from the bartender: "Sorry bro, it wasn't busy at all so I just closed". I'd love to try that with my boss, something sorta like: "Hey man, I'm going to leave since there's not much going on today, and although I know we close at 5 p.m., I just kinda feel like going home". That's the one thing I hate most about Baltimore nightlife, the fact that if you are OPEN til 2 a.m., then STAY OPEN til 2 a.m. And to all these alcoholics that complain about bars closing at 2, why the hell do you need more than 2 or 3 hours in a bar? Isn't there something else you should be doing, like perhaps finding a life? I rarely hit up a bar before midnight, and by 1:30 I'm done. What the hell else is there to do for 3,4, or 5 hours in a bar? Go home and sleep it off people.

So let's talk about New York now. That dump is over with. It's sad to see what a total wasteland of a garbage pit it has become. It's completely different than it used to be. I couldn't imagine living in such a cramped, confined and nasty mess as that place has become. I won't even get started on the price you have to pay to have that town inflicted on you. Forget about owning a car. Most people that grew up there know what I'm talking about and they gradually had the sense to leave. You can hardly even find anyone there that speaks english anymore. You can have the entire nightmare. Now Chicago... that's a town.

Johnnycat, is this satire? I can't tell.

johnnycat, they only close early when they see you coming.

OH! Gentle Laura Lee with a johnnycat smack down! Did not see that coming.

Josh, if it's satire it is great satire. Unsure myself.

Okay, I'll bite. Why wait until midnight to go to a bar? I know I'll be sorry I asked.

I for one can spend 3-5 hours in a bar Photoshopping a framed photo of Stain into the background of my artwork. That way my time there is work, not the slack depravity that people without a netbook are perpetuating.

Time to go "work"

I know I asked for for your input, but johnnycat, you again failed to stay on topic. The topic was what makes Baltimore nightlife special. You claim that you like Baltimore but "it doesn't offer much in the way of nightlife."
Then you go on to discuss what you hate most about Baltimore nightlife, bars closing early. I agree that it's annoying, but if a bar closes early, I would hope the owner is aware of this and is allowing it to happen. If not, you would probably have a pretty ticked off owner. If a bar is dead, and you don't think business is going to pick up for the rest of the night, I see no reason to stay open. The owner has overhead. I don't see the sense in paying the salaries of the employees and leaving lights on, etc. if there's no money coming in. And realistically, a bartender that stays open on a slow night would probably give away just about everything behind the bar hoping to get a decent tip.
I would love to see bars stay open later but I don't think that will happen. No matter what time you close, you will more than likely be kicking out drunk patrons at closing time.
Shankman, when you buy a pitcher of beer at 1:30am you're asking for trouble. My understanding is that the place has to be free of any patrons and there can be no drinks (full or partially consumed) on the bar or tabletops. Liquorboarding correct me if I'm wrong.
When I worked at a bar at closing time we turned on the lights and started corralling people toward the door. People would drag their feet, wait for friends and/or band, make a last ditch attempt at "scoring" or just finish their drink. If you've been to a bar in Baltimore before you know the deal before you go. Lights on at 1:30 and you're usually asked to leave no later than 1:45 unless you're close friends or related to the employees or owner. If you're that concerned about continuing the party, do what I do and start making plans for after hours around 1am.

alex Crain, I don't know if you're serious or a spammer but I don't find a blog who accuses a business like Soundgarden of existing solely off stealing and saying that the residents of Fells point suck having much to do with the topic at hand.

"alex Crain, I don't know if you're serious or a spammer but I don't find a blog who accuses a business like Soundgarden of existing solely off stealing and saying that the residents of Fells point suck having much to do with the topic at hand."
Glad to see somebody else noticed that. I was relatively on board with the first post, raised an eyebrow at the second post, and flat out had to comment on the Soundgarden post. Hopefully that blog will either get a hell of a lot better really quickly or fade away into nothingness, posthaste.

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About Erik Maza
Erik Maza is a features reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He writes for several sections of the Sun paper and contributes weekly columns on music and nightlife. He also writes and edits the Midnight Sun blog. He often covers entertainment, business, and the business of entertainment. Occasionally, he writes about Four Loko, The Block, the liquor board, and those who practice "simulated sex with a potted palm tree." Before The Sun, he was a reporter at the Miami New Times. He's also written for Miami magazine, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Gainesville Sun. Got tips? Gripes? Pitches? He's reachable at Click here to keep up with the dumb music he's listening to.

Midnight Sun covers Baltimore music, live entertainment, and nightlife news. On the blog, you'll find, among other things, concert announcements, breaking news, bars closings and openings, up-to-date coverage of crime in nightlife, new music, round-the-clock coverage of Virgin Mobile FreeFest, handy guides on bars staying open past 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve and those that carry Natty Boh on draft. Recurring features include seven-day nightlife guides, Concert News, guest reviews of bars and concerts, Wednesday Corkboard, and photo galleries, as well as reader-submitted photos. Thanks for reading.

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