Over time, downtown area has become party central

April 20, 2002|By JACQUES KELLY

I NEVER thought that Baltimore enjoyed much of the nightlife scene, but then again, I'm usually snoring by the time the disco set is deciding whether to wear their spandex or Lycra. And whoever thought the Saturday night rage would be stand in line to wait for admission to smoke cigars at a club?

My friend, Marc Baladi, a veteran Red Ball cab driver, insists there is a 2 a.m. Sunday morning crowd out there unknown to the rest of the slumbering city. In his 26-plus years of cab driving, he says, he has never seen this aspect of the Baltimore scene change as much as it has in the past five years. The old nightlife scene of Fells Point - and possibly The Block of World War II - has jumped its traces.

There are late-night revelers on Redwood Street in the old financial district. Canton jumps with more bars than ever. There's something called the Ottobar at Howard and 26th (I used to buy varnish there when it was the Albert Rhine paint store). And then there's the Red Maple, where my mother's friends got their hair styled when it was Carl Griesser's beauty shop. It's now an Asian-influenced tapas bar on Charles Street opposite the Maryland Club.

"It's really exploded, it's amazing, quite phenomenal," Baladi says. "So many other aspects of the city are horrendous, but this is really a very positive thing for downtown."

Baladi, who usually stops driving at 3:15 a.m., says there are still some people on the street when he quits and heads home to Northeast Baltimore.

One of the reasons I don't associate Baltimore with nightlife goings-on is that it doesn't look the part. You could gaze at Calvert and Redwood streets and never know that the Monday to Friday business scene converts to a nightlife zone. All I see are old office buildings and streetlights.

I guess it's because the Redwood Street I think of is all about the old Mercantile Bank, where I cashed checks and stored my grandfather's pocket watch in the safe deposit box. It's now the Redwood Trust, one of the more current evening destinations.

Because I live around the corner from Ottobar (live music and drinks), I ought to know more about this place. I don't, except that it used to be one of those time-stood-still neighborhood paint stores. Not only is it now a club, but also a place for bands. And get this: There is a separate quiet section where two Monday nights a month, there's a quilting session for those who like to sip a beer and sew.

One night last summer, I got a late start coming home from the Eastern Shore on a Saturday night. We expected to sail through downtown Baltimore, where we thought the sidewalks rolled up after dusk. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. There were so many people out the Police Department had shut down Baltimore Street, and we got snarled in a traffic jam.

I find myself amazed - and amused - at the locations for Baltimore's Saturday night stepping out. And I'm dumbfounded by its diversity - cigars and quilting, anyone?

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