Manager Melanie Hagan, right, serves a margarita verde to Scott… (Steve Ruark, Baltimore…)
On a recent Saturday night at Banditos, the taco and tequila bar located in the heart of Federal Hill's party scene, inconsistent service overshadowed the Tex-Mex spot's laid-back vibe.
While some details were easy to enjoy (portions of the decor, music selection and, most importantly, the drinks), the overall experience was not. The central problem seemed to be the underprepared (or undermanned) bar staff, which grew noticeably frustrated by the steady — but not overwhelming — weekend rush.
The night started off well. As Outkast's "Jazzy Belle" played at an appropriately loud volume, our party quickly claimed a high-top table near the bar. In terms of layout, Banditos resembles another Federal Hill bar — No Idea Tavern, with its long, narrow bar and adjoining lounge area with seats and games. Given the bar's high foot-traffic location, its atmosphere was refreshingly comfortable and pleasant.
There were 50 or so people in the bar, including some spillover from the day's college football games. Some were eating burritos and quesadillas, but most were clutching cans of Miller Lite. There was enough room for an impromptu interpretive dance-off between two happy-go-lucky patrons, which raised a couple of eyebrows and earned even more laughs.
The mood soured once we attempted to order drinks. One of the three bartenders said a server would be over momentarily, but after nearly 10 minutes of waiting, we returned to the bartender. When I told him a server had yet to come, he cursed (to himself, but loud enough for me to hear it), either in anger that our server hadn't taken our order or just out of general frustration. Either way, we were drink-less, which is never a good start for new customers.
Consider this a suggestion to new bars: Make the service memorable, but for the right reasons.
Our bartender didn't take responsibility or even apologize for the delay; he merely bristled at the inconvenience of taking another order. In the process, he made a first-time patron feel guilty for asking him to do his job. (A second bartender saw friends from our group waiting to order another round and poured them a free round of tequila shots, so it's possible my bartender was simply having an off night.)
The poor service was a shame, because the cocktails were solid and, in some instances, delicious. Judging from the impressive array of bottles lining the bar and the novella-size cocktail menu, Banditos takes its tequila — all made from the blue agave plant — seriously.
For those in search of something different, Banditos offers a tequila-tasting menu, ranging from $18 to $30, that highlights the spirit's different "families" (blancos, reposados, anejos and mezcals).
We bypassed the tequila tasting and ordered cocktails. The Traditional Margarita ($8), a mixture of Espolon Blanco tequila, lime juice, house sour and triple sec, was well-balanced, but our bartender didn't ask if we wanted salt around the rim — another misstep.
The Margarita Verde ($11) split the table, with some appreciating the use of cilantro, forever a divisive herb, and others denouncing it. For this judge, the cilantro subtly cut through the other ingredients (Tanteo Jalapeno tequila, agave syrup, lime juice and cucumber) without overpowering them. The Watermelon Basil Margarita ($9) was the most refreshing, thanks to its confident, adornment-free recipe: Espolon Blanco, simple syrup, triple sec, watermelon and basil.
Compared to the impressive cocktail list, the beer selection seemed just adequate. There were more than 20 types of bottled beer, but only four on tap (Miller Lite, Negra Modelo, Sam Adams' Octoberfest and Breckenridge's Agave Wheat).
Banditos seems to take itself seriously as a tequila bar, displaying care for the product in an inspired but unintimidating way.
Other aspects, such as the decor, seem thrown together. The sombrero tacked to a wall felt lazy, but the Day of the Dead-inspired murals did not. There's also random filler, such as an out-of-place leather couch lounge, a Big Buck Hunter video game and a "Beer Ball" machine (essentially Skee Ball with bar-related rewards). These tacked-on amenities are fun, but they muddled the bar's identity more than they helped define it.
Even after we left, our group couldn't figure out Banditos. Was it a sports bar? A place to get well-crafted tequila cocktails? Was it more of a Tex-Mex restaurant than a bar? Or vice versa?
There's still time for Banditos to answer these questions and carve out an identity in Federal Hill. Improving the service, on the other hand, needs to be addressed right away.
Back story: With Banditos, owners Andrew Dunlap and Sean White (formerly of the Reserve and 1542 Gastropub) hope the third time is the charm in Federal Hill. The bar menu focuses on its wide selection of tequila, while the kitchen serves burritos, tacos and other Tex-Mex creations.
Where: 1118 S. Charles St., Federal Hill
Signature drink: The Watermelon Basil Margarita ($9), made of Espolon Blanco tequila, simple syrup, triple sec, watermelon and basil, wonderfully balances its bitter and sweet notes.
Parking: Street parking and a garage at 40 E. West St.
Contact: 443-835-1517; banditostnt.com
Open: 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday