The exterior of Plug Ugly's Publick House in Canton. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
Canton's Plug Ugly's Publick House picked a prime spot in O'Donnell Square. It falls in between Looney's Pub and Claddagh Pub, two well-established Irish haunts where most Baltimoreans know what to expect: cheap beer, Top 40 hits ad nauseam and hordes of young professionals.
Replacing the old Helen's Garden restaurant with a shiny two-level bar would seem like a great way to make a splash. Yet every time I've visited Plug Ugly's since its March grand opening —10 or more, at least — I've been consistently underwhelmed.
It's hard to deny Plug Ugly's potential. It's well-designed, and the two floors offer varying experiences. Downstairs feels more appropriate for a date, with more space to talk and enjoy a meal. Upstairs has a few booths for diners, but its open-air deck and potential dance area seem built for a crowd looking to get loose on the weekend.
So what's the problem? As a weekend spot competing with Looney's and Claddagh's, Plug Ugly's can feel generic and sleepy. If there were an O'Donnell Square award for bar with the worst lighting, Plug Ugly's would win it, which is saying something. Trying to read the beer list is almost comically hard.
The menu features a back story to Plug Ugly's name, but on a recent visit, I lost patience trying to read it. (A Google search later explained that the Plug Uglies were a politically minded street gang in Baltimore during the mid-19th century, a tidbit that made the awkward name cooler, but not by much.)
Some tables and chairs are removed after dinner hours to create a small dance area upstairs, but it feels more like a closet compared to the neighboring bars' dance floors. As 10 p.m. approached on a recent Saturday, the upstairs was still languishing in dinner mode as an Orioles game played on the TVs.
The bar would get more crowded — I counted about 40 people upstairs — but the vibe remained subdued. Almost all of the nights I've been at Plug Ugly's have been similarly low-key. It'd be nice to see how Plug Ugly's handled a lively jolt upstairs, even if it had vibes of a frat party, like you usually see at Claddagh.
After months of visits, I had become convinced that, as a bar, Plug Ugly's was an average, slightly disappointing addition to the Square at best. Besides a better-than-average beer list (52 choices, ranging from typical light brews to more interesting selections, such as the Evolution Craft Brewing Company's Lot No. 3 IPA), there was nothing distinguishing Plug Ugly's from its competitors.
But on my most recent trip, I finally found a reason to return: Pirate Juice. According to my bartender — who, like all Plug Ugly's staff I've encountered, was helpful and down to earth — Plug Ugly's is the only bar around selling it. As he pointed to a large, clear container filled with fruit and seven types of rum, he warned us: "Be careful."
Apparently, he had recently introduced Pirate Juice ($8) to an inquiring patron. An hour and a few Pirate Juices later, the bartender was serving the now-slurring man some much-needed water rather than another round.
It's a strong cocktail, made with a splash of orange juice at the bottom, the in-house rum mixture and Sprite. The fruit bouquet of a garnish was a bit much — slices of Granny Smith apples, blueberries and strawberry topped off the drink — but overall, Pirate Juice gave Plug Ugly's a memorable drink that remained smooth, even as the alcohol kicked in.
More important, Pirate Juice separated Plug Ugly's from the rest of the bars in O'Donnell Square, if ever so slightly. There's more ground to cover, but Pirate Juice at least points Plug Ugly's in the right direction.
Plug Ugly's Publick House
Back story: Formerly Helen's Garden, Plug Ugly's is a renovated space in O'Donnell Square. It has yet to emerge as a legitimate competitor to the weekend dance scenes at nearby Looney's or Claddagh pubs.
Parking: Metered parking on the street.
Signature drink: Pirate Juice ($8), a strong yet smooth cocktail made of an in-house rum mixture, Sprite and orange juice. It's a drink that helps give Plug Ugly's an identity. It's also deceptively strong, so drink in moderation.
Where: 2908 O'Donnell St., Canton
Contact: 410-563-8459, pluguglyspub.com
Open: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily