The first strip club I ever went to was in Prague, in a part of town called Wenceslas Square that’s now mostly populated with touristy bars and shops and strip clubs. This particular one didn’t have a cover charge, and the club, located down a flight of stairs, had as many chairs and small tables jammed into the space as possible, with women pushing the clientele to order drinks and rate cards for private rooms located on every table. The obvious push to order private time with the dancers gave the impression that the performances onstage were meant merely as a sort of teaser trailer—a way to window shop before committing to an hour or more of entertainment. The dancers seemed to know this too, and looked utterly bored even as they went through the motions of simulating sex with each other onstage. I couldn’t help but be utterly fascinated in a weird anthropological way by what was playing out around me.
Since then, I’ve been intrigued by the dynamics of strip clubs, a fascination that was only further cemented when I made a short visit to Baltimore’s Scores (615 Fallsway,  528-1117, scores-baltimore.com) a few Halloweens ago and was flattered by one of the dancers there. So when I learned that Scores and a few other strip clubs around Baltimore had full kitchens to accompany their entertainment, I knew I wanted to review them. I recruited various friends to join me for dinner at both Scores and Fantasies Nightclub & Sports Bar (5520 Pennington Ave.,  354-1217, fantasiesnightclub.com). (I also tried to go to dinner at Millstream Inn in Gwynn Oak, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be: We got a flat on our way there and had to put on a spare tire and head home.)
Scores’ vibe is a mix of industrial sports bar and upscale club, with TV screens showing a mix of sports games and videos of women prancing flirtatiously in front of a camera. There’s usually a cover charge, but you can go to Scores’ website and print out a pass for free admission on weekdays before 9 p.m., which my friends and I obviously took advantage of. We decided to sit at a back corner of the bar, which turned out to be an excellent choice: We were tucked away in an intimate corner but we still got a good view of the dancers, who performed on a stage at the end of the bar and would walk along the bar top after their performances, bending down so we could slip dollar bills under the string of their underwear.
We ordered some Bohs and began perusing the food menu, which consisted of bar fare—wings, mozzarella sticks, chicken sandwiches—and standard American food, including wraps, steaks, and fried shrimp. As I figured out what to order, my friends struck up conversation with our bartender, and she told us that she had been working as a bartender at these sorts of clubs for years, after getting her start working at a Hooters in high school—“I bet a lot of girls here got their start at Hooters,” she said. She told me the chicken tenders ($10) were one of the most popular items on the menu, so I ordered those with fries, and the spinach and artichoke dip ($7) as an appetizer. The dip, which came with tortilla chips, was a bit thin, but it still had a good flavor with plenty of spinach and pieces of artichoke in it. I could see why the chicken tenders were one of the most popular items on the menu: The satisfyingly crispy exterior had plenty of spices in the batter, and the meat inside was surprisingly juicy. The bartender had recommended we get the Sriracha dipping sauce on the side with the tenders, and that, too, was quite good, spicy but not unbearably so. The dancers carefully navigated their heels around our plates as they walked on the bar and apologized for stepping over the food as they bent down to make quick small talk and have us tip them.
As we lingered over a few more drinks, one of my friends made the observation that it was surprisingly refreshing to go to a bar where women were entirely in charge. There were men working as security, but they mostly faded into the background and didn’t interact with the clientele, while the women ran the bar, collected the cover charge at the door, performed, and strutted around the club to flirt with the men, ask for drinks, and offer lap dances. Maybe the power dynamic would have felt different had we been there on a weekend rather than a Monday night, but in some ways, as women, we felt more comfortable hanging out there and cheering for the dancers than we did hanging out at male-run bars.
Fantasies had the same sports-bar vibe but turned up a notch, with a more cavernous space, bigger TV screens, and a couple of pool tables, for those who got bored of the dancers, I suppose. A stage with a pole on either end sat in the middle of the large rectangular bar, with a decent smattering of men sitting around it. All of the dancers were friendly to my female guest and me without being pushy; near the end of our visit, my guest commented that she could picture herself grading papers there. The menu at Fantasies had the same sort of American sports-bar offerings as Scores, with more suggestive dish names and descriptions: “Let Her FEED you,” the description for the honey chicken kabobs with veggies ($10.25) said. I passed on the kabobs, but we did order the “orgasmic crab dip” ($13.75), which was creamy and cheesy with noticeable crab meat and came packed into a bread bowl with a thick layer of cheddar cheese baked on top. I ordered the house burger ($9.25) medium well, and while it came out a tiny bit more cooked than I would have liked, it was still satisfyingly juicy and greasy and was complemented well by its chipotle mayo, lettuce, tomato, onions, and cheese (which was $0.50 extra). The french fries that accompanied it had obviously been made in house, and were subsequently more flavorful than most fries you’d get at bars in the city.
As we finished up our food, I overheard a man sitting near me talking to one of the dancers who was hanging out with him and, presumably, getting him to order her a drink. He was complaining that his wife got off work at 8 p.m. and it was only 8:05 and she was already calling him, and the dancer responded supportively. I commented to my dining companion that I probably wouldn’t have the patience to do the emotional labor it takes to work at a strip club, to buoy men’s egos and flirt with them endlessly in exchange for tips and drinks, regardless of how attractive or engaging (or married) a man actually was. But then I thought back to that first trip to a strip club in Prague. I hadn’t gone alone—I’d gone with an American man I’d met that night who had been buying me drinks and assertively flirting with me. And on my first-ever trip to Scores, it had been to meet up with a man I’d met once before, who had approached me at a bar and bought me a few drinks, and who handed me some dollar bills at Scores with which to tip the dancers. These were, in some way, transactionary interactions too—not as money-driven as the interactions between the dancers at the strip club and the customers, obviously, but there still existed the expectation that I would deliver some sort of emotional or physical attention in exchange for the drinks and attention that these men had given me. Weren’t the women here just better at capitalizing on and monetizing the constant objectification of their bodies? Or do strip clubs, with their sports, burgers, beers, and boobs, aggressively reinforce expectations of masculinity and men’s power over women? Or is it both? I’m not sure, and I wasn’t about to ask the men sitting at the bar if they’d be willing to delve deep into their psyches so I could parse out their perceptions of women. Like pretty much anything involving gender and sex and money, it gets messy to try to parse the meanings of it all. Perhaps it’s just better to enjoy your food, tip well, and remember the dancers are workers too.