The owners of El Basha couldn't have picked a worse spot to open a hookah bar.
I hate to say it, but it's true. It's almost unfathomable to think that a brand-new hookah bar like El Basha can sustain itself in downtown Baltimore, a stone's throw from The Block. That's right, El Basha, which opened last month, is on Baltimore Street, just a block or two west of one of the city's seediest strips.
It's a shame, because El Basha has a lot going for it. Most of the city's hookah bars are small and can feel cluttered. Not so at El Basha. It's a long, wide space, with tables and chairs lining the walls and plenty of open space in the middle. The furniture - wood frames with colorful cushions - looks like something you'd have in your den if it were 1985.
A couple of friends and I stopped by about 9:30 last Friday night, and (unexpectedly) found plenty of free parking on Baltimore Street. Normally, parking in this part of downtown is scarce on a Friday or Saturday night. The blue awning above El Basha is not well-lit, which makes the hookah bar hard to find unless you're looking for it.
Three rugs sit on new-looking granite floor tiles. Shelves with sliding glass windows are inset in the side walls - probably holdovers from when the building was a jewelry store. Unfortunately, these shelves make El Basha seem like more of a store than a lounge. Otherwise, I liked how open El Basha is.
Hookahs cost $15 at El Basha - a couple of bucks more than Zeeba Lounge and Arabian Nights in South Baltimore. One of the servers at El Basha used to work at Arabian Nights, when it was Three Kings of Egypt. We asked for a hookah filled with apricot, a light, sweet shisha. All of the hookahs appeared to be brand-new, and the shisha was smooth and tasty.
About an hour after we arrived, a belly dancer emerged from a back room and started gyrating. A server dimmed the house lights and fired up those disco balls. El Basha became an instant party zone.
One of the customers was so excited to see the belly dancer, he stood up, walked toward her, pulled a wad of cash out of his pants pocket, licked a thumb and peeled off $1 bills at her. The bills fluttered in the air above the belly dancer before drifting down to rest on the floor.
This display, I thought, was tacky. This was something that belonged a couple of blocks down the street. A few scruffy-looking passers-by curiously peered through the front windows at the belly dancer. They appeared tempted to come in, but didn't. Sooner or later, they might. And a crowd of crazy Block-bound revelers will ruin the vibe of El Basha.
I want El Basha to succeed, because I like it. And I hate to be a pessimist, but I just don't think it will.
A warm, fuzzy success
Last Saturday, the folks at Captain Larry's in South Baltimore organized the city's first Snuggie Pub Crawl. In case you're unfamiliar with the Snuggie, it's a big, fuzzy blanket with sleeves that has been getting a ton of attention these past few months.
Nobody is sure exactly who came up with the idea to do a Snuggie Pub Crawl, but the Captain Larry's crew put together an eight-hour tour of 11 South Baltimore bars. The response was stunning. More than 80 people showed up - all in Snuggies or Snuggie spin-offs, said Captain Larry's co-owner Ivars Balodis.
"I was shocked," Balodis said. "It was a fantastic event."
Balodis and company are planning another Snuggie pub crawl for the last Saturday in February 2010.
"We'll make it a yearly pilgrimage," he said.
Jam band the Disco Biscuits, electro-funk group Chromeo and jammers Lotus will headline this year's Starscape Festival at Fort Armistead Park.
Bassnectar, Pnuma Trio, The Bridge, Shawn Caesar, Stanton Warriors, Chase & Status, Donald Glaude and Monsters of Jungle are among the other artists on the lineup, which was announced this week.
The festival is set for June 6. Advance tickets are $50 for general admission and $139 for VIP. Go to starscapefestival.com.
if you go
El Basha is at 227 E. Baltimore St. Call 443-220-0111.