How do you solve a problem like Baltimore's new Irish pubs?
The last two I've reviewed — Delia Foley's and Finnegan's Wake — have disappointed. They have all the bells and whistles of a Chuck E. Cheese's: Wings! Arcade games! Delirious young people running around! And just as much originality. They are rudderless, exhibiting none of the rich character and history their neighborhoods are known for.
Liam Flynn's Ale House has found a way to do the Irish pub right. This new bar from the former manager of the Pint-Size Pub is everything these other bars are not: original, personable, chill and, most notably, respectful of its city's long and rich nightlife history. Most of the bar was cobbled together out of the architectural salvage of dead venues.
Its decor is not it's only redeeming quality: This might be the bar in Station North, even in the entire Charles Village area, with the best beer menu — one that includes two cask-conditioned ales.
Officially open since early July, this pub has been in development seemingly for as long as Rye Rye's debut album. Flynn has been promising a new bar since his Pint-Size Pub closed three years ago, the deadlines zooming past him year after year.
The delays can be explained, at least partly, by the bar's home. The space was part of the North Avenue Market and was destroyed after years of neglect. When I visited in October of last year, the bar looked like it had been through the Blitz.
It has been radically transformed by Flynn and his wife, Jessica Beil, into a lovingly restored and retrofitted, softly lit, smart-looking hangout.
Divided into two spacious rooms, the Ale House has side-by-side tables in front of the bar, and space for darts and high-top tables and stools tucked further back. Its walls are filled with hand-me-down knickknacks, model sailboats and old beer ads.
Evidence of architectural salvage is everywhere. The bar is made from a former bowling alley; the floor, from the store Second Chance, is vintage oak and teak tile; a nonworking fireplace was added to the darts room for effect. The one TV here is overpowered by the jukebox — which seems secondhand also, and has an hodgepodge of music that includes Beyonce, Fats Domino and the Pogues.
The combined effect is moving. Where other bars attempt a retro effect with artificially aged furniture and faux antiques, this one comes by its nostalgia honestly. These salvaged materials — from the shuttered Chesapeake Restaurant, among others — also give the bar a geographic as well as historical anchor, making it not just another new bar, but more like part of a tradition.
In short, it's plainly clear that a lot of thought was put into every small detail, from the music to the beer to what kind of stuff would line the walls.
Beer nerds will appreciate the Ale House for its menu: 13 beers on draft — Saranac ale, Dogfish Head, Brooklyn Brown and Evolution, among others. In what is likely a first for the neighborhood, the Ale House has two rotating cask-conditioned beers: Oliver's Best Bitter and Bishop's Breakfast on the Thursday night I went.
Prices are in the $2-$5 range; my Evolution Summer Session was $5. By the bottle, the bar carries 19 brands, including Tecate, Heineken, Newcastle, and craft beers like Belhaven Scottish Ale and Old Speckled Hen.
It does not have a beer menu, which means prices are not posted anywhere. Here's a new rule for every bar owner out there: If you carry more than five beers, get a menu with prices. Two bartenders, including Flynn, were at the bar at all times.
The Ale House is nestled right next to the Windup Space, and one lingering question has been whether they will be in competition. By the time I left around midnight, the music venue was still packed.
That night, the Ale House was only sparsely attended; a group of prepsters talked shop by the bar, and a couple of punks in rat-tails and open-chest jean jackets played darts in the back. These are two well-run, handsome bars, but if the Windup Space pulls in people with its music, the Ale House can at least be comfortable with its superior beer offerings.
Of all the lessons Liam Flynn's Ale House offers to other bar owners — and there are several — the most pertinent is that, perhaps, it may just take over two years to get an Irish pub right.
Liam Flynn's Ale House
Back story: The Ale House has been in development for at least two years. In April 2010, Liam Flynn promised the bar would open by June, but he didn't get his liquor license until late June. It officially opened to the public July 9.
Parking: Widely available in and around North Avenue.
Signature drink: One of the cask-conditioned ales, like Oliver's Bishop's Breakfast Oatmeal Stout
Where: 22 W. North Ave., Baltimore
Contact: 410-244-8447, pintsizepub.com
Open: 4 p.m.-2 a.m. daily
Price range: Natty Boh is $2, a draft around $4, a pint under $5; Guinness is $5. Bottled beer is around $4.
Happy Hour: 4 p.m.-8 p.m. daily
Similar to: J. Patrick's