Giving city nightlife a surge of energy

UP FRONT

October 11, 2001|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Latin music spills from the open door of the Cuban restaurant and nightclub; inside, well-dressed folks in their 30s shimmy to the beats, showing off their salsa moves. In the bistro next door, a 40ish couple sits near a 20ish one, heads bent together, reading the Italian menu.

A few establishments up, two piano players bang out impromptu versions of Sisqo's "Thong Song" while onlookers of all ages howl. Farther on, in another nightclub, young men and women dressed in the kitschy gear of the '70s line-dance on a multicolored floor lighted from below.

Outside, people mill in the businesses' shared plaza, sipping drinks and flirting.

It's just another Saturday night in Baltimore.

Whoa! Back up there. Baltimore?

The natives are the first to admit it: We may have some pretty cool daytime attractions, but except for a few places like Fells Point and Canton, our nightlife has been, shall we say, somewhat lacking.

But in bits and pieces over the last three years, an entertainment leviathan has grown quietly in our midst - right across from the Inner Harbor. It's Power Plant Live!, a complex so energetic it comes with its own exclamation point." `What is there to do in Baltimore?' That's always been the big question," says Carroll R. Armstrong, president and chief executive officer of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "Baltimoreans are always running down to D.C. for nightlife, but with Power Plant Live!, they can stay right downtown and enjoy themselves in a venue where you're allowed to walk around with your drinks. It makes you feel like you're in New Orleans."

While it's not exactly Bourbon Street, Power Plant Live! does have some of that New Orleans Mardi Gras feel. Most of its businesses exist under an arena liquor license, so you really can wander about outside with alcohol in tow, street-festival style, as long as you stay within the plaza's confines. And the businesses at Power Plant Live! are as varied as the parade floats that snake through the Big Easy.

There's Howl at the Moon, a dueling-piano bar specializing in good-naturedly bawdy entertainment; Bar Baltimore, a bare-bones, highly social party bar for (according to Chris Kelly, the assistant manager) "people who aren't afraid to come out and puke on their shoes once in a while"; Babalu Grill, an upscale Cuban restaurant that turns nightclub come 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; Have a Nice Day CafM-i, a psychedelic, retro-themed dance club prone to "pimp-and-ho" parties; McFadden's Restaurant & Saloon, a Manhattan transplant with wood-lined walls and big-screen televisions; Mondo Bondo, a locally owned Italian bistro serving food until 2:30 a.m.; Maryland Art Place, a gallery showing only Maryland artists; and Bill Bateman's, the sixth restaurant/bar in the Maryland chain and, according to some, home of Baltimore's best wings.

Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and the Havana Club, a high-end Latin nightclub and cigar bar, were already on site when plans for Power Plant Live! were drawn up, but they've since been adopted into the grouping.

And those businesses are just what the complex offers now. Expected to open by next spring are an Improv comedy club, a concert hall with seating for 2,500, a sushi restaurant (Bamboo), an upscale lounge (Time) and an outdoor, "island-themed" bar.

A good mix

"There's nothing more important than tenant mix," says Reed Cordish, the development director for the Power Plant Live! project. "That's something we were very careful about, creating something that would appeal to everybody."

But who a business appeals to is often governed by the tick of the clock.

In the early evening, it's time for the dinner crowd - older couples, younger groups, families. As night falls, so does the number of patrons above the age of 40. While Babalu targets people in their 30s, and the Havana Club goes for professionals in their 30s and up, after 10:30 p.m., the majority of businesses at Power Plant Live! are filled with guests in their 20s.

"We were quite concerned about that at first," says David Sadeghi, the chief operating officer of Big Steaks Management, which oversees the Havana Club, Ruth's Chris and Babalu. "But the young crowd at other places helped, actually. Adults still want to see young people, and they can come and sit out here [at the plaza tables] and watch the young people run up and down and make fools of themselves."

Young adults as sport: It could be counted as an unofficial Power Plant Live! attraction.

On a recent Saturday night, Karen Kulesz, a Towson University senior, has a poor-woman's tiara pinned to her head announcing her 21st birthday. (She came to Power Plant Live! because "it's really easy to barhop here.")

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