Review: The Park Bench

The unpolished new South Baltimore bar shows promise

  • Park Bench is a new bar in South Baltimore.
Park Bench is a new bar in South Baltimore. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
December 02, 2010|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

South Baltimore's newest bar has been open for less than a month. It's so new, it doesn't even have decorations on the wall, except a clock and an alarm box. The toilet still has a remove-before-using sticker.

So few have stepped inside, it still has that new apartment smell. When I spoke with manager Stephen Gronowski recently, he hadn't even settled on a name yet, wavering between The Park Bench or just Park Bench.

Still, I went down for an early look last Friday, and found a bar that, though short on pizzazz or notoriety, shows a lot of promise. Gronowski has said the Park Bench doesn't aim to be much more than a neighborhood bar. It isn't, but it's also much more handsome than some of South Baltimore's other recently renovated bars.

The bar also has an asset in Gronowski himself, a longtime manager at Don't Know Tavern, who was bartending the night I visited. There might have been fewer people inside than in an old Western movie saloon, but Gronowski was personable and attentive to each. Especially at neighborhood watering holes, it's this kind of one-on-one that goes a long way towards ensuring customer loyalty.

The Park Bench is located near Riverside Park, at the end of a long, narrow street lined with bumper-to-bumper parked cars. It's so unadvertised, you might miss it as you're driving around looking for one of those impossible-to-find parking spaces. Its name is still not outside. In fact, the only sign there might be a bar at the corner of Belt and Barney Streets, is on the sidewalk, where a rickety specials board is a puff of wind away from tipping over.

Residents might recognize this space as the old home of Boomer's on the Hill, that bar with the Wii console in the back, a noble concept that nonetheless lasted less than two years. After Boomer's closed in November, Grownowski took over leasing it in March, and has spent the rest of the year remodeling the space. It shows.

The front of the bar, with its candle-lit tables, clean set-up and two flat-screens, is nicely spiffed up. The wood floors look like no one's ever spilled beer on them. Gronowski, who said he has more work to do, is embracing an industrial aesthetic in lieu of being totally finished. He's kept Boomer's exposed-brick wall and visible air ducts, and painted the walls in varying tones of cement-gray.

There are 11 stools and five dark-wood tables just far enough from each other that it'd be difficult to hear what people on each side are saying. Not that you'd have trouble; last Friday, there were just four people other than me in there.

Gone is the Wii and its big screen. And so, the back of the room, big enough for a pool table, sits empty, save for a couple of stray high tables. Gronowski plans on adding a kitchen entrace there later.

As it is, the Park Bench looks like a furnished apartment you've just moved into, where only the first half is presentable. But on Friday, there were so few people there was no point in going back there anyway. The tables were the perfect spot to kick back and watch Oregon whoop Arizona, which is what I did, over a Clipper City Loose Cannon ($4.50).

With its soft lights and candles, the front could even pass for a romantic spot, except instead of couples cooing to each other, it was Rod Gilmore and Joe Tessitore of ESPN.

Other than the occassional groan over a bad Wildcats play, the bar was quiet enough that it'd be as good as a Starbucks to catch up on work, so much so you almost wanted to ask the bartender for a macchiato.

There's even a little sign outside that advertises free wireless, though, I couldn't find a signal all night long. Maybe my iPhone had had too much to drink.

As far as neighborhoods bars in this area go, the polished, if unfinished, look will help set the Park Bench apart. The others, like Captain Larry's, the Moe's of South Baltimore, have been around for longer, and look their age.

Let me put it this way, if only because an ad for the "True Grit" remake came on while I was taking notes: If Captain Larry's is the Jeff Bridges of South Baltimore bars, the Park Bench is the Matt Damon, a mustachioed Matt Damon.

In terms of booze selection, there's nothing out of the ordinary here: seven beers on tap and eight by the bottle; Gronowski said he plans to add more. They range in price from $3 to $5.50.

The bar's greatest attraction for now, especially for neighbors, is Gronowski himself, the man they call "pipes" (an old college baseball nickname). He understands that one of the pleasures of patronizing a new bar is that, with so few customers, staff will actually be able to remember your name. And so, he's especially welcoming to new faces.

When I first asked for beer, he introduced himself, and I thought he'd recognized me, but then he did the exact same thing with another customer. Later, he even asked someone about their Thanksgiving holiday. With the guys who were actually at the bar, he kept a running banter over the football game.

This kind of hospitability is a skill Gronowski no doubt picked up over his years working at Don't Know. But though he's been associated with that bar for two and a half years, with the Park Bench, he might eventually succeed in making a name for himself.

If you go

The Park Bench is at 1749 Belt St. It is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 6 p.m. until 2 a.m.

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