When Michael L. Spaur walks into a bar he hopes to find "some place that will surprise me pleasantly."
The surprise could be that you can choose the temperature of your draft Guinness, either the American-favored 36 degrees or the warmer European-preferred temperature of 54 degrees. That how the stout is served at the Cat's Eye Pub in Fells Point.
Or the surprise could be the setting. It might be the walls of stuffed fish that decorate the Dead Eye Saloon next to Baltimore's Hanover Street bridge, or the row of motorcycles that sit out front of Daniel's, a biker bar in Elkridge, or a country western nightclub with a waterfront view, Country Docks in Calvert County.
Good bar food is another unexpected pleasure Spaur looks for. He likes the pizza at La Trattoria in Frederick, the fried clams at Kisling's in Fells Point, the smoked bluefish appetizer at Pirate's Cove in Galesville, and the cheese sticks homemade and free that are served at the bar at Schaefer's Canal House in Chesapeake City.
These are among the 101 Maryland watering holes that pleasantly surprised Spaur. He lists them all in his just published paperback "Beverage Journal Guide to Maryland Taverns, Clubs and Bars" (Journal Books, Hanover, $8.95).
It is a book with a point of view, and in a telephone interview from his Hanover office, Spaur talked about his barroom standards. ,, He is 43 years old, a former restaurant critic and entertainment editor for the Frederick News Post, who is now the editor of the Maryland Beverage Journal, a trade publication of the liquor industry. Spaur said he paid his own way at the bars, and did not allow the bar owners mentioned in his book to edit what he wrote.
He also rated each bar, on a scale of 0 to 5 in three categories -- Yuppie Appeal, Munch Factor, Comfort Zone. A fourth division, the Bud Quotient, listed the price the bar charged for a 12-ounce Budweiser. In the interview, Spaur explained his classification system.
He said bars with a high yuppie rating, a 5, were likely "to be filled with power tie-clad, Gold Card-toting patrons, sipping Absolut Bloody Mary's and discussing the merits of their new car fax machine."
Spaur let the bar owners assign their own young urban professional rating. "I figure they knew their clientele better than I did," Spaur said. "I told them that if a 0 on the yuppie scale was Daniel's (the biker bar) and Webers' (a renovated bar on the Canton waterfront) was a 5, then where are you."
Spaur compiled the food ratings on the Munch Factor himself. What he was looking for, he said, was not high-falutin' cuisine but "food you could grab in one hand while you had a beer in the other." Examples of such fare were the crab cakes at Coins Pub in Ocean City, the cheeseburger at the Naughty Gull in Solomons Island, and the spicy burrito at Baltimore's Cafe Tattoo.
A bar with a high "Comfort Zone" rating, he said, was a place where "you just want to sit and not leave." Such comfort can be found, he said in the overstuffed chairs at Andy's, a Chestertown tavern, the second floor window seats in Donnelly's in Frederick, the fireside sofa at the Silver Tree Harbor in Deep Creek Lake, and at the seats facing the Hollins Market in the Tell Tale Heart bar in southwest Baltimore.
The only bar in his book that scored a 5 in yuppies, comfort and food was Andy's in Chestertown. It served liver pate and burgers, had comfortable chairs and, he said, was filled with "yuppies-in-training" from from nearby Washington College.
Spaur recorded the price of Budweiser at the bars, he said, because it was a widely available suds and therefore an indicator of how pricey a place is. A fan of finer beers, his book praised the Baltimore Brewing Company and Sisson's, for brewing their own beers, and the Last Chance Saloon in Columbia for carrying 50 different draft beers.
As a rule, Spaur said, he was not interested in hotel bars, bars that were parts of a national chain, or bars in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Hotel and chain bars were tidy establishments Spaur said, "but once you've seen one, you have seen them all." As for bars in the Inner Harbor, they are so close together, he said, you don't need a guidebook to tell you about them. All you have to do is walk from one to another.
Having said that, Spaur acknowledged that he broke his own rules. He put one hotel bar, the Corner Bar at Baltimore's Omni, in his book because of the bar had an exceptional 100 page drink menu. A chain, O'Toole's Pub in Laurel, got in because it has major trivia contests, and Spaur likes trivia. And he was so taken with the water view from the Rusty Scupper and the marble bar at the Scarlett Cove Cafe that they were also in the book, even though they are in the Inner Harbor. Proving, I guess that all barroom standards are relative.
Spaur said he had some regrets. He was sorry, for example that he failed to get John Stevens tavern, a Fells Point pub that served sushi, in his book. And he noted that while the color cover of his book is a view of downtown Towson, there were no Towson pubs in his book. He would change the photo, not the listings.
There are some nice bars in Towson, Spaur said. "But there aren't any surprising ones."