Leaving the Gayborhood
In search of nightlife off Baltimore's beaten path
The Mr. and Miss Quest 2014 Pageant at The Quest in Highlandtown (Helgi Olgeirsson / June 8, 2014)
Many think our options are limited to a handful of uptight Mount Vernon clubs, which seem to cater more and more to weekend warriors who wear T-shirts emblazoned with the name of the store where they were purchased. Worse, the number of weird little gay dive bars that feel both idiosyncratic and quintessentially Baltimore dwindles every year. In 2011, we lost the Phoenix, that cheap, dirty little spot on Biddle Street where K-pop dance parties and down-low pool sharks coexisted in drunken bliss. In 2012, The Baltimore Eagle, the legendary leather bar where S&M daddies and trans sex workers rubbed shoulders (and other body parts), sold to a developer and has been "closed for renovations" ever since, with no set reopening date. In recent years, the city's rowdy lesbian bars have been hit even harder: Gallagher's, Coconuts, and Port in a Storm have all shuttered, seemingly reducing lesbian nightlife in Baltimore to an occasional potluck somewhere in Lauraville.
Mount Vernon may feel like the definitive gayborhood, but decades ago there were thriving queer enclaves scattered across the city, from Waverly to the west side of downtown and even Southeast Baltimore. Today, there are just a handful of neighborhood gay bars that hold down the fort outside of the increasingly homogenous center. Thankfully, they're all pretty weird. I'm a big fan of reminding myself that Baltimore is a much bigger city than it feels, and going on an MTA adventure to outlying gay dive bars is the perfect way to meet new people and score some cheap booze.
The Rowan Tree (1633 S. Charles St.) opened in 2003, but feels like it's been here forever. I come to this bar almost every Monday night to watch RuPaul's Drag Race on one of their many big-screen TVs. It's always fun to give friends directions to meet me and hear their shock that the city continues south of American Apparel, into the hazy borderlands between gentrified Federal Hill and old-school South Baltimore. There used to be a sign in the bathroom here that said something to the effect of, "Patrons always ask if this is a gay bar or a straight bar. The Rowan Tree is a bar for everyone!" Indeed, this is part of its people-watching appeal. On a typical weeknight, this shotgun-style corner bar might have a couple younger gay guys playing pool in the back, half a dozen older men staring into their buckets of beer, and an assortment of neighborhood women who pop in and out between shots and cigarettes, complaining to other regulars about their husbands and checking on their kids outside. Another former sign in the bathroom summed it up best: "An evening in the Rowan Tree = An evening in a John Waters movie." The vibe is always friendly, the drinks are reasonably priced (my rail vodka soda was $5), and you can bring take-out food or get delivery from nearby eateries. My favorite drag queen in Baltimore, Shawna Alexander, hosts monthly drag shows on first Sundays. EJ the bartender recommends coming on a Saturday, when beer and wine are on sale from noon to 10 p.m., followed by karaoke. It's the perfect place to spend the day getting hammered if you have an obnoxious Saturday night obligation in Federal Hill, like a boring high school friend's bachelorette party or work function at a bro bar. Plus, the bar has off-street parking (a sought-after rarity in the neighborhood) and is pretty easy to get to via bus or circulator.
Across town, tucked-away behind Highlandtown's Southeast Anchor library, The Quest (3607 Fleet St.) is a hidden gem of cheap, fun bars (my vodka soda was $3). The Eastern Avenue corridor used to have quite the reputation for queer sleaze, rough trade, and public cruising. Today, the scene is much tamer. The spacious bar attracts a small crowd of long-time regulars, some younger Canton newcomers, and pretty much all of the dozen or so gays who live in Dundalk. The bar has a great digital jukebox, hosts drag shows, and has a skee-ball machine! Sadly, The Quest might be gone after the summer season. The owner, Tom Mathison, told me he's considering selling the bar to developers who would raze it and replace it with a block of town homes. "The gays, especially young people, don't support the gay bars anymore," he said. "People go to straight bars with their friends or else online." So get off Grindr for a night; if you're looking for a vibe (and prices) that feel formstone-era Baltimore, enjoy The Quest while you can before it gets swallowed up by South East's rising tide of vinyl-sided banality. The bar is cash-only, but with drinks this cheap, your tab will probably amount to whatever cash you happen to have crumpled in your pocket.
Gallery One Bar (1735 Maryland Ave.) is much closer to the borders of the gayborhood, but much closer to my heart than any of the gay bars within it. This was actually the first gay bar I ever went to. When I was a teenager, my parents dropped me off down the block at Charm City Art Space for a show and then went in here for a drink, not realizing it was a gay bar. Even they had a great time and made some new friends—although in retrospect I think that might have had something to do with the fact that the pornographic zine Daddy was being published upstairs in the same building at the time and my father fit the publication's type. Ever after, I would sneak out of straight-edge shows at the art space with my fake ID and whatever older friend I had a crush on at the time and get drunk under the bar's neon "OUTRAGEOUS!" sign. Everything I loved about this bar as an underage punk holds up today: cheap, strong drinks; a diverse and friendly crowd; the bowl of free condoms; and, of course, that neon sign. The one downside to Gallery One Bar is its 1 a.m. last call, which seems crazy considering the neighborhood. I can't count the number of times I've been at the Depot, Metro Gallery, or Club Charles and dragged a group of friends here for old time's sake only to find the doors locked and lights off.
If you're really up for an adventure, check out Mixers (6037 Belair Rd). It's about as far northeast as one can get while still being within Baltimore City limits. I had never been to Mixer's until last week; I don't drive and it's a lengthy trek on the No. 15 bus. But last Sunday I convinced a group of queers to drive here and we all agreed that we would love this place as soon as we walked in and realized that RuPaul song "The Beginning" started playing in sync with our entrance. The narrow bar wasn't particularly crowded, but beyond it was a dance floor with a lonely disco ball that looked like it would feel packed in the best way possible on a more happening night. Beyond that, there was a small outdoor patio that was crowded with regulars who all introduced themselves as soon as we came outside. One of them told me, "I prefer this place to the downtown bars. Everyone from downtown used to come up to see ‘the new place' but now it's mostly regulars."
Dan, the bartender, confirmed that the bar mostly attracts locals from the burgeoning gay populations of Hamilton and Lauraville as well as regulars who drive in from the county. Apparently Friday nights are the most fun, when a roughly 70/30 mix of lesbians and gay men come for a weekly dance party. The bar also hosts drag nights, offers inexpensive drinks (my vodka soda was $4.75) and serves $2 rails every Tuesday.
There are even a few more conveniently located gay bars that I've yet to check out. There's ZiascoZ near Fells Point and Little Italy (see City That Drinks, page 40), and on the other side of downtown, Club Bunns (608 W. Lexington St.) reigns as the capital of the city's vogue ball scene. Bunns has such a legendary reputation (Male Gogo dancers! Drag shows! Voguing! Dance parties!) that I'm almost hesitant to go lest it not live up to my expectations. I'm always looking to try new places, but with a limited and dwindling supply of gay bars, maybe a little mystery is good; I wouldn't want the whole city (not just the gayborhood) to start feeling like "Smalltimore."