Owner Keith Murphy talks with patrons at Murphy's Law… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
In February, Spike TV announced "Bar Rescue," a design makeover show, would take up the cause of J.A. Murphy's in Fells Point. The show was coming at the request of owners Keith Murphy and Joel Gallant. Theirs was one of more than 200 bars to apply for a guest spot on the show, the network said.
Two months later, a new J.A. Murphy's, now dubbed a cliched Murphy's Law, quietly reopened. You could be forgiven for not knowing about it. While the bar got a new draft system and upgraded look, it seems the show's producers — or the owners — forgot to fix some things.
The phone line, for one. I called for several days, and no one picked up. The bar's sign is at the wrong door. The beer on tap is banal. And though it looks freshly remade, the new Murphy's Law lacks the rowdiness the old establishment was known for, and it has screwed up some of the basics of a bar.
While there are traces of the divey charm of the old Murphy's, Murphy's Law now looks largely redundant.
When I showed up on a Wednesday night, I wasn't even sure the bar would be open. There had been no publicity for its reopening, and for days no one picked up the phone. A bartender told me later that the phone isn't properly hooked up. Calls to the owner's cellphone went unanswered, too. The bar's Facebook page is still under the old name, and its old website's domain name is up for sale.
The Murphy's Law sign is not by the main bar, but in front of a dining room that sat empty Wednesday and Thursday nights last week.
A bartender told me "Bar Rescue" moved the bar counter six inches, worked on some structural changes in the basement and added a new computer system, along with draft lines.
The main room is now better laid out, with ample space between the bar and high-top tables. And there's also an enclosed patio, outdoor furniture in front of the bar, and a dining room with a foosball table that used to be in the main bar.
Murphy's Law looks like any standard bar: lots of exposed brick, kooky framed photographs on the walls, liquor neatly lined by the register. It all had a vaguely corporate feel.
That seems to be a common criticism directed against the producers of "Bar Rescue." After they fixed up Piratz Tavern in Silver Spring, longtime customers of the bar revolted and formed a Facebook group in protest. The owners of the bar eventually rejected the renovation (it officially reopened last Friday).
At Murphy's Law, the bartenders on both nights said they were pleased with the renovation. But the disconnected phone line, the unmarked entrance, the nonexistent marketing and a forgettable drink menu suggested a quick TV fix: something that photographs well but doesn't hold up in real life.
All these failing seem to have had an effect. Late Wednesday night, there was only me and one couple at the bar, and on Thursday, there were just a handful of people drinking beer at the bar while the other rooms sat unused.
One of the customers told me he missed the old J.A. Murphy's. That bar had been known for its rowdiness and drinking games, one of which included a gulping a pitcherof Red Bull, vodka, and a grenade bomb shot.
Those games have disappeared. The eight beers now on draft, all $6, are macros that seem to have been selected for their advertising potential: Yuengling, Sam Adams, Magners, Smithwick's. By the bottle, the selection is equally disappointing, with only one craft beer — Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA — among them.
Cocktails are saccharine concoctions. The Berries & Cream ($7.95), for example, consists of Smirnoff Whipped Cream, Smirnoff Strawberry, lemon juice and a strawberry wedge. It was bubblegum sweet and just as disposable. At least, the bartender used fresh lemon juice.
This much you can say about Murphy's Law: On both nights, my bartenders were talkative, upbeat and quick. On Thursday, the bartender was planning a game that involved drinking all eight beers on draft in less than five minutes. And on Wednesday, a different bartender took requests for cheesy pop songs.
Between the two of them, it was possible to see what might have attracted customers to the old J.A. Murphy's. Maybe it's time for the owners to pull a Piratz Tavern and return to their old ways. If not, the bar's name might prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Back story: J.A. Murphy's opened in 2009 and became known as an unpredictable, chill dive that employed lots of drinking games. Last August, it closed temporarily for renovations. And in February, the Spike TV show "Bar Rescue" picked it for a makeover, which was completed in three days. The episode is expected to air this summer during the show's second season.
Parking: On-street metered parking available.
Signature drink: Berries & Cream ($7.95), a cocktail consisting of Smirnoff Whipped Cream and Strawberry, lemon juice and a wedge of strawberry. The bar also has eight beers on draft ($6), including Smithwick's and Yuengling. Bar grub — jalapeno poppers, nachos — is also available; the kitchen closes at 10 p.m. daily.
Where: 1703 Aliceanna St., Baltimore
Contact: 410-753-4420 (Don't be surprised if no one picks up.)
Open: 5 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays