Shun the shovefest for a game of bar tag

ON NIGHTLIFE

Scene

September 22, 2005|By SAM SESSA

A bar night in Federal Hill can sometimes turn into a claustrophobic shovefest, with you versus a bumbling pack of loud, drunken meatheads. To avoid this, you have to turn your night into a slow-moving game of tag: You hide in one bar until the zombies flood it and you scamper to another bar a couple of blocks over.

If you play well, your eyes won't water with smoke trails from a thousand cigarettes. You won't have to cup your hand to your mouth and scream:

WHAT'S YOUR NAME!?!?!

or

GIMME ANOTHER GIN AND TONIC!!

Here's one man's guide to a (mostly) fathead-free night out in Federal Hill.

Start early at a popular joint before it gets packed. We went to Mother's Federal Hill Grille for some food about 9:30 p.m. one Saturday, in that nice little post-dinner crowd/pre-bar crowd window. All-American fare was in order: a few of Brother Don's Big Phat Old Bay Hot Wings and a Big Buh Burger, washed down with a couple Mother's Brews. A medium-bodied beer with good flavor, draft Mother's Brews cost the same ($4.50) as draft Yeunglings and taste better.

After about an hour, the music started getting louder, and the bar area started filling up. We didn't have to deal with this up close (we were in the dining area), but hearing some dumb mid-'90s pop song (Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It") finally broke us. This might be how we do it, but it's not Friday night, and we're not in middle school anymore. Time for us to move on.

We hunkered down, formed a line behind RJ (the big guy of the group), and elbowed our way through the sea of flesh and smoke. We walked up East Cross Street looking for another half-full hangout when Robert Plant's high-pitched scream stopped us cold. It was Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love Medley" from BBC Sessions, blasting from No Way Jose Cafe's jukebox, and we were hooked.

While Jose's downstairs area is a little narrow, if you're there before it fills up, it's actually quite cozy. We snagged a few stools near the jukebox and started feeding it. We ordered a few cool ones, and I looked for some salsa tunes on the jukebox to match the decor. After five minutes, I gave up and settled for the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar," because it reminds me of the South, which is as close as I could get to Mexico, musically.

Next came Ryleigh's, a clean and classy pub with lots of stained wood and exposed brick. An empty table on the upstairs balcony called to us. It was well past midnight at this point, and while people still hung out downstairs, the upstairs area where we sat was nearly empty.

We were at a table, so we thought we should wait for a server to take our drink orders. We kept glancing over at the bartender and she kept glancing back at us. Stalemate.

Finally we broke down and ambled over to the bar.

The longer we sat and talked, the more people slowly sifted out the door, making it easier by the moment for us to hear ourselves. By 1 a.m., we couldn't believe our luck - we were almost alone upstairs. I chuckled at the thought of the sardines down the street stuffed into McGurk's. Not us!

Tonight, at least, I would walk home with my vocal cords and my sanity intact. All in all, I was pleased with the way we dodged the goonies, and dubbed the night a success.

Mother's Federal Hill Grille is at 1113 S. Charles St. Call 410-244-8686 or visit mothersgrille.com.

No Way Jose Cafe is at 38 E. Cross St. Call 410-752-2837.

Ryleigh's is at 32-36 E. Cross St. Call 410-539-2093 or visit ryleighs.com.

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

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