Raising The Bar

Hip yet homey, Dizzy Issie's is the Baltimore hangout that you knew was out there, somewhere.

March 07, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Julie Benoit is dancing by herself again. She's wearing a tight-fitting charcoal sweater, low-rise jeans and an aquamarine scarf that flutters behind her like a streamer. How many nights end like this - with Michael Jackson's "Rock With You" on the jukebox and a small space in front of the fireplace at Dizzy Issie's cleared out for those who wish to get their groove on?

And then something extraordinary happens - or, something that would be extraordinary if it happened anywhere but this cozy corner bar in Remington. One of the fellows Julie calls "the toothless guys" (she kids because she loves), a large man wearing a purple satin Ravens jacket and carrying a bottle of Miller Lite, sidles up alongside her and begins to dance.

He moves slowly, shuffling his feet and swinging his arms as the King of Pop rocks the night away. Julie, who's 29, is more manic, arms in the air, elbows at right angles, shoulders hunched. The song ends, as even a Michael Jackson song must, and the dancers separate. Julie thanks her new friend and he smiles in return.

Worlds collide - or at least bump and grind - at Dizzy Issie's, where regulars from starkly different backgrounds find common ground over cheap beer, a game of pool or a cheesy pop song. This safe zone was created by Elaine Stevens, who has owned the bar for 15 years and guided its transformation from a rough neighborhood watering hole to a hangout for hipsters, artists, gays and professionals, without alienating the blue-collar workers who were its original clientele.

It's an unlikely tale that involves filmmaker John Waters, two local institutions of higher learning, the best club sandwich in town and $5.50 pitchers of Yuengling. But more than that, it's the tale of Stevens, 52, a woman who never forgets a name, who cooks a tender-as-can-be steak (despite being a vegetarian) and who has found her slice of heaven on the corner of Remington and 30th streets.

"Elaine should be a politician," says Waters, who met Stevens when she tended bar at the aptly named Hard Times on 28th Street. "She is what makes all bars good - a great hostess. She can talk to the scariest people and to those on the opposite end, the yuppie types. She can talk to any kind.

"In places like Hampden and Remington, these worlds are put together, and it's kind of an uneasy mix. But I don't think it's ever uneasy in there, and that's because of her."

Stevens, like her bar, seems to be one of those uniquely Baltimore creations. She is free of pretensions and so far removed from hip that, in a way, that's exactly what she is. She is a bridge connecting the two worlds that exist in her bar, a model for a city that is trying to polish its image while preserving some of the grittiness at its core.

Elbow grease needed

She bought the bar in 1989, with her husband at the time. It was called Buckley's then, and it was a mess. She said the refrigerator was filled with a foot of sludge and the deep fryer looked like it hadn't been cleaned in a year. She worked constantly. After giving birth to her son Kyle in 1990, she went back to work on her first day home from the hospital.

"My aunt said, `You can't take that baby into the bar!' Well what was I going to do?" she says. "We had a shuffleboard machine and I would sit him in his little chair on top of the shuffleboard machine. And if I was working in the kitchen, I'd bring him back and sit him on the counter."

Stevens and her husband split up shortly after they bought the place. She took it over full-time and decided to rename the bar in honor of her friend Isabel (who is not equilibrium-impaired, but simply the victim of a good rhyme). The name may have changed, but she had trouble shaking the rough element.

There were plenty of fights, and people Stevens had to ban, including a convicted drug dealer. She called his probation officer to let him know he was up to no good. The dealer responded by having her car set on fire and the bar's plate-glass window smashed. She held her ground.

"I was born and raised in this neighborhood," she says of Remington, a working-class section of Baltimore west of the Johns Hopkins University and south of Hampden. "Nobody is going to chase me out or change my mind about what I want to do."

So she would call the police every time a troublemaker entered the bar, and eventually the rough types learned to stay away. For years, it was quiet. "I can remember when Tuesday nights would just be me and Kellie [Highlander, a bartender] sitting here," Stevens says. "We'd order pizza and watch American Idol."

But the tide started to turn a few years ago. Hopkins moved its 30-person office of facilities management into a building just across the street from Dizzy Issie's, and some employees now find themselves there three times a week for lunch.

"The burgers are pretty healthy - and by healthy I mean large," says Frank Richardson of the facilities office.

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