Line dancing at Cancun Cantina (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
Cowboy hats, flannel shirts and leather boots dot the dance floor at Cancun Cantina, swaying and shuffling to the sound of a twangy pedal steel guitar.
Hundreds of country music lovers come to the Hanover roadhouse every week to boot scoot and boogie their way through dance lessons held Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. It's a rare scene -- a taste of Texas in the shadow of the Mason-Dixon line.
Baltimore might straddle the North and the South, but the region has only a handful of true blue country bars.
"I moved here from Nashville, and to me, there are very few country bars here for a city this size," said Justin Cole, music director for country radio station 93.1-FM WPOC.
"But the bars that are around, it's about quality, not quantity," he said. "They do a great job of catering to the country fan."
These three local watering holes are just that: welcoming places where country music lovers can hang their 10-gallon hats and feel at home.
Cancun Cantina could eat a lesser country bar for breakfast.
It's a big, brash, in-your-face kind of country bar, the kind of place where a "Roadhouse"-era Patrick Swayze would feel right at home.
The orange-red glow from Cancun Cantina's neon sign comes into view a half-mile away. The sign bears Cancun Cantina's logo, a bone-white bull skull, horns and all. On Friday and Saturday nights, the sprawling bar is a mob scene, with 10-gallon hats, flannel shirts and cowboy boots aplenty.
Owner Tony Toskov had no experience running a bar before he opened Cancun Cantina 17 years ago (the bar's anniversary party is Feb. 19). He was a limo driver who spent most of his nights waiting in the parking lot outside hot spots while his customers partied inside. Toskov saw the job as an opportunity to research the area's bar scene and figured Greater Baltimore could use a roadhouse. So at 30, he quit his gig and founded Cancun Cantina.
"When I opened it, country was the hottest thing at the time," Toskov said. "We jumped in and rode the wave. We're still riding it."
One of the main reasons Cancun Cantina is still around, Toskov said, is because he is constantly updating it. He built an enclosed patio where they plant new palm trees every summer, a billiards lounge and added new dining areas.
With its stretches of wood and stone, Cancun Cantina has a feel that's half-bar, half-lodge. The room with the main dance floor has an American flag mural, as well as a black banner emblazoned with the Cancun Cantina logo and streaked with lightning bolts. A bull bust hangs above the stage, and a life-size Elvis statue stands nearby.
Every six months, some aspect of the place gets an update, Toskov said. Over the years, Cancun Cantina has quadrupled in size, to roughly 30,000 square feet. The events roster has changed, too. Tuesdays through Thursdays, it offers country dance lessons on its big wooden dance floor. Live bands set up on an adjacent stage on the weekends (country singer-songwriter David Allan Coe will be there Feb. 22). For a time, Cancun Cantina played host to weekly bull riding, and Toskov is thinking about bringing it back in the coming months.
"We've added on and added on," Toskov said. "We're always making changes. I believe that's why we're still here. We continue to put money back in."
Cancun Cantina isn't cheap because it doesn't have to be. There is always a cover charge before 7 p.m. (the amount varies, depending on the event), a bottle of Bud Light is $3 (not bargain basement prices) and a game of pool costs a whopping $2.
That doesn't stop people from coming, though. On a recent Tuesday -- traditionally a slow night for most bars -- Cancun Cantina's main dance floor was nearly full. The bar was so successful that Toskov opened a sister location, Cancun Cantina West, in Hagerstown three years ago.
In December 2006, a fire at Cancun Cantina caused $1.9 million damage and forced the bar to close, Toskov said. The fire was ruled arson, but the person who set it was never caught. Toskov enlisted his employees to help with repairs, and Cancun Cantina was up and running in less than two months. It's been 17 years, and Toskov is looking forward to the next 17.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "We'll be here that long."
Cancun Cantina is at 7501 Old Telegraph Road in Hanover. Call 410-761-6188 or go to cancuncantina.com.
The Friendly Inn
The Friendly Inn can never be accused of false advertising.
As its name implies, this Ellicott City watering hole is a long-standing refuge, where locals can toss back a few while listening to solid acoustic and electric live music.
The building's exterior boasts a farm mural, complete with barnyard animals playing instruments, painted by artist Ezra Berger.