Patrons share a laugh at Smaltimore in Canton. (Colby Ware, for The Baltimore…)
To call Smaltimore, the Canton bar that replaced Lager's Pub in July, "busy" on a recent Sunday afternoon would be a severe understatement.
Surrounded by almost all New York Giants fans — the rowdy type, as if there is any other kind — I took two steps forward through the main entrance and quickly realized that would be as far as I could comfortably go. It was a shoulder-to-shoulder playoff atmosphere, filled with fans rooting for a team that would later lose 38-0 to the lowly Carolina Panthers. (After the Americana in Canton closed this summer, Smaltimore became the neighborhood's new Giants bar.)
The Giants were not winners, but judging from the large, passionate crowd, the same was not to be said about Smaltimore.
Managing consultant Jason Zink, owner of Federal Hill's No Idea Tavern, was hired by Smaltimore's owners to establish the bar as a new corner hangout with a strong emphasis on customer service. (The bar's all-too-appropriate tagline is “Where everybody knows everybody and everything about them!”)
But in a couple months time, initial expectations have been smashed, and Zink's bar is an overnight hit the likes Canton hasn't seen in years. The question surrounding Smaltimore was once “Will it work?” Now, there's a slight concern that it's working too well. Zink imagined a slow, organic rise to the top of Canton's bar options away from O'Donnell Square, but instead, his bar has attracted regular nightly crowds normally reserved for Claddagh's Pub and Looney's Pub. There's a slight sense of “too much, too soon” when Zink discusses his new project.
It's not difficult to see why Smaltimore has worked so far. First, it has a gimmick that no other Baltimore bars have — the Drink Exchange software system, which updates its beer prices, in real time, based on the day's sales. If a draft becomes popular at Smaltimore, the price will increase and, in turn, less-purchased draft prices will drop. On a recent Friday night, a Brewer's Art Resurrection was down 21 percent to $4.75, and the “ticker” (typically displayed on four of the 15 flatscreen TVs) informed patrons the daily high-price was $6.75 and the daily low-price was $4.50.
The Drink Exchange software is a fun draw, especially for first-timers. But it's also a novelty that can be off-putting for the same reason it's intriguing. (Staring at a screen advertising a $4.50 Stillwater Ale draft is great ... until you see a Dale's pint is up to $7.) The key, obviously, is to buy low and to remember prices are constantly fluctuating. Still, seeing a screen always flashing $6-7 drafts — even next to nicely discounted options — will make you think Smaltimore is expensive for a corner sports bar. Here's one suggestion that could help: Make National Bohemian the exception, and sell it at a flat, low rate. (Is there a quicker way to turn off a Baltimore drinker than to sell a Boh for $4?)
More so than its pricing system, Smaltimore should be commended for its smartly crafted beer selection. There are 36 taps, and every Maryland brewery is represented. Bars yet to open should pay attention.
The true appeal of Smaltimore is not the fancy pricing system, but rather the core elements of any good bar: service and design. Bartenders know many customers by name, and make it a point to frequently check on parties to see if they want anything. Zink said the unexpected crowds have made this more difficult, but on my many visits since Smaltimore opened, its staff has been consistently cordial and accommodating.
Even better is the layout. Smaltimore's left wall has two large sets of French doors that stay open until 9 p.m. On a warm day, it can be the ideal place in Canton to enjoy a craft beer.
Smaltimore isn't without problems. The most obvious and pressing is how loud it is, inside and outside, of the bar. A friend who lives across the street said the noise can get overwhelming at night, even with closed French doors, and Zink said neighbors have complained about the noise. (In those cases, Smaltimore has closed its doors and windows. “We want to be neighborly and the neighbors come first,” Zink said.) He said the problem isn't just the bar's “openness” but also the hardwood floors and the brick walls. Zink called it a “problem that needs to be resolved,” and he's hoping that adding speakers to the wall away from the TVs will help balance the sound and control the volume. (He acknowledges that adding speakers sounds counterintuitive, but Zink is confident it will quiet things down.)