A look at the bar at the Lighthouse Tavern in Canton. (Colby Ware, Baltimore Sun )
After a run of the best of the '80s, Lighthouse Tavern's music selection hit its nadir with Eddie Murphy's "Party all the Time." Most bartenders would have quickly pushed 'skip,' but not mine, who pumped up the volume — and, when asked if the singer was Eddie, said, "[Expletive] yeah!" and did a little jig.
Like its music, much of Lighthouse, a bar that opened a month ago, seems caught in a time warp. It looks like a dive in a John Landis movie, its decor as vintage as the music playing on the speakers.
Though its owner had promised "an upscale tavern" that would serve as an alternative to O'Donnell Square, there is little upscale about it. The square might be rowdy, but the bars there are more contemporary than Lighthouse. And though Lighthouse's service is lively, its beer selection is meek and its dining menu commonplace.
Patrick McCarthy and a partner, Christopher Petrie, bought Sports Cafe in January and renamed it Lighthouse, an ordinary name that contradicted the new owners' goal to stand out from the swell of bars in Canton. McCarthy, who had worked as a bartender at Looney's, told me he wanted his bar to be the kind of place "where you don't have to have someone screaming next to you."
That much was true when I visited on a recent Thursday night. No one was screaming next to me, though a slightly tipsy young woman did give me a fireball shot so I could celebrate her best friend's birthday.
The bar was busy with a crowd of people in their mid- to late 30s, and though they were talkative, the music, consisting of Run-D.M.C. ("Raising Hell"), House of Pain ("Jump Around"), Skid Row ("18 and Life") and other '80s and early '90s acts, was louder. At first glance, Lighthouse, like its name suggested, looked like any other dive. It was clean, but stale, like a bar that hadn't been retouched in years.
Except that it's new. McCarthy told me he had replaced the old bar's Formica countertop and taken out the fluorescent lighting. And he'd raised expectations by promising an upscale tavern. Though Lighthouse doesn't look like a "liquor store" anymore (his words to describe Sports Cafe), it hasn't settled on a look that is modern or upscale, and so it fails to meet its own standards.
The walls are painted a boring white, which took on a faded cream color thanks to the bar's weak ceiling-fan lamps. Those also cast the whole bar in an unflattering light. For decor, there were Guinness ads and paintings of nautical scenes in the kind of frames you might find at Goodwill stores.
Despite ample space — it's divided around a U-shaped bar and a dining room in the back — everything at Lighthouse looked homely. Only the sign outside and a Lighthouse-branded doormat looked new.
When I spotted a St. Mary's College pennant above the cash register, I finally realized what Lighthouse reminded me of — those dives in college towns that don't have to try very hard because they know college students will take whatever they're offering.
This might work in St. Mary's City, but not in Canton. Say what you will about Looney's — and in light of the mayhem during St. Patrick's, there's plenty to say about rowdiness in the square — but it looks current. Staff there also look engaged and, most important, young. At Lighthouse, the wait staff, while attentive, dressed sloppily — shapeless madras shorts, visors, oversize T-shirts — as if they'd just rolled out of bed.
Even the beer menu at Lighthouse, cheaply printed on stock paper and inserted into sheet protectors, was out of date: It listed Heavy Seas Black Cannon, one of the draft beers from the week before.
Though McCarthy promises a great craft selection, he has only five beers on draft — and they include Guinness and Natty Boh, which hardly count as craft (Heavy Seas, Allagash Brewing, and Oskar Blues are the others).
By the bottle, Lighthouse has 18 brands, many of them Western beers: Lagunitas, Oskar Blues, Boulder Mojos. There's no need for a Baltimore bar to carry only regional beers, but for one with such a small selection, the lack of regional brands on the menu seems like an oversight.
Taverns and dives can set themselves apart in many ways: character (see Nevin's, Mount Royal Tavern), beer selection (Baltimore Taphouse, Don't Know), history (Horse You Came In On). Right now, Lighthouse can't trade on any of these qualities.
They might want to dress up a little more, build up their beer selection based on regional brands, give the bar a brighter coat of paint and replace the existing decor with stuff that doesn't look like as if it was taken from someone's basement. And print proper menus on quality paper, or use a blackboard if they want to rotate beers.
And how about changing that soundtrack? Some new hip-hop instead of something from 1993? If not, Lighthouse risks being that bar you go to when you want to listen to "Party All the Time."
Back story: After Sports Cafe closed earlier this year, Patrick McCarthy and business partner Christopher Petrie bought it in January and renamed it Lighthouse Tavern. They spent several weeks renovating the space — including replace the Formica bar counter — to turn it into "an upscale tavern" and opened in February.
Parking: Street parking widely available on Clinton Street
Signature drink: Oskar Blues Dale's Pale Ale ($5). Lighthouse has five beers on draft and 18 by the bottle/can (Boulder Mojo, Lagunitas, Bitburger). The bar has nightly drink and food specials. Food, consisting of sandwiches, appetizers and some entrees (chicken alfredo), is $4 -$19.
Where: 1226 S. Clinton St.
Open: 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. daily; kitchen closes at 10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays