The Venice Tavern is a bulwark against the brave new world

There is a plague upon the city, creeping up from the South and the overpriced theme park that the nation's capital is fast becoming. No, it isn't the clueless Washington Post writer who makes a semi-annual migration in order to marvel at how strange it is that this provincial backwater can exist right up the road from their very important city filled with very important people like them. No, as annoying as those stories are, they are mere nuisances. But the six buck beer is an existential threat.

Three years ago it would have been hard to find a bar in Baltimore that would admit to selling a beer for $6. Surely, there must have been a few places and the very extravagance of the expense would have been part of the charm, like paying too much for whatever slightly fancified version of comfort food at Woodberry Kitchen. If you went to a fancy place and got fancy beer, of course it would be a lot. But now, everywhere from the spiffy new Mt. Vernon Marketplace to old downhome joints like Mount Royal Tavern, if you're buying a craft draft you're gonna kick out more than fives clams.

It's even at the places that brew the beer. A recent trip to Waverly Brewing, which is not in Waverly but Clipper Mill, revealed that they charge $6 for an admittedly delicious beer brewed on premises. I had to wonder, if you brew it on site and eliminate transportation and bottling and all of that, how does it make sense to cost so much? I mean I can buy Duckpin, which I think is the best beer in town, at about $12 a six pack at the store. That's two bucks per beer. At a bar, of course, you are paying for rent and for labor and liquor license and so you're gonna pay more. And you should. Paying double the retail rate is totally fair, but triple—especially when bartenders and waitstaff get almost no hourly rate and rely on tips—is something we should collectively reconsider.

Some of it is real estate, which is always at the forefront of irrationality. If your rent goes up you either have to sell more expensive beer or more beer. As people drink less, you have to charge more. And part of it is the crazy liquor board around here and the puritan activists who are always trying to strip beer joints of their licenses.

But in a hard drinking city with a lot of vacant space, unless they are mixing heroin in with those hops, there is no reason we should be paying anywhere near as much for a beer as they do down DC-way (and in fact, according to sources, it can be cheaper to get a shot of heroin than a craft draft in this city). To make it worse, dives are trying to spiffy themselves up and get tacky makeovers to appeal to the burgeoning scene of yuppies.

Venice Tavern (339 S. Conkling St., [410] 732-3045, @VeniceTavern) is an old school basement bar (the definition of a dive). I've spent a lot of time there over the years and so I was a bit nervous when I saw they got a Twitter account. I couldn't imagine Marie, the only person I've ever seen behind the bar, on a smartphone. And to make it worse, they tweeted about their new craft beers.

So when I went over, I was happy to find that almost nothing has changed: the walls were still graced with a portrait of FDR and various fighters, the low tile ceiling still bore decades of cigarette smoke, and the pool table still took up half the room. The old jukebox, which was one of my principal reasons for coming to the joint, had died a while back and they now had one of those fancy things where you can play whatever you want, which is OK, I suppose. Marie said they'd tried to fix the old one but it was unsalvageable. RIP. (And one night, she allowed us to turn it off altogether as Anna RG and Caleb Stine started playing their instruments in the corner).

But they also installed several new taps featuring local or local-ish craft beer and sell it for $3 a pint—half the price of nearly anywhere else in town, all day, every day. On my most recent visit, they had 12 different varieties ranging from the biggest micro brews like Fat Tire or Lagunitas or Dogfish Head to local faves like Resurrection. It wasn't the super-curated, every-beer-is-some-crazy-special-thing-you've-never-heard-of kind of selection, but it was a solid list with something for everyone. Get a couple Lagunitas Lil Sumpins (ugh, worst name), which weigh in at 7.5% abv and then switch off to Boh and you could end up with a hell of a buzz for well under $20.

But since we're talking about price, I gotta say, the Boh has gone up since 2011, when City Paper awarded Venice "Best Dive Bar." Back then, it was $1.25. Now, you'll be shelling out an extra shiny quarter, which may have mattered a lot more back in the days when tavern mounted pictures of Roosevelt above the bar to celebrate the end of prohibition, but today $1.50 is still one of the best deals you're gonna get.

To soak up all of that glorious beer—because, surely, the only way to maintain good cheer in the face of summer 2016 is to find the appropriate combination of beer, weed, and sex—you've got to get some food in your belly. Even if you hit one of the great places nearby on Eastern Avenue like Carlos O'Charlie's or La Sirenita, you might still find yourself wanting a snack, and you won't go wrong with Venice Tavern's coddies.

If you've never had a coddie, they're potato cakes flavored with salt cod, so that it is something like a combination between a crab cake, a hushpuppy, and a knish—bar food at its best. They are $1.25 each and are served with crackers and mustard. It's the only food on the menu (unless you think of potato chips as food) but it's really all you need. I ordered four on my last visit and was full after three but had no trouble finding someone who wanted to eat my last one. I think, perhaps, no better compliment to beer has been devised.

And the thing is, it's not like you get less experience for your money over at Venice. The places with $6 beers will attract people who can pay $6 for a beer and your conversations will be bedraggled with the jetsam of the middle class yuppie. The atmosphere is better and the beer is cheaper, so Venice is our new champion, the bulwark against the brave new world where we are all willing to pay too much to get our buzz on just because.

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