Close your eyes and imagine the Federal Hill bar scene late on a Saturday night. If hazy images of loud, crowded bars filled with pushy, drunken patrons fill your head, then you have likely experienced the madness first-hand.
At around 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Joey B's Bar and Grille was quiet, especially in comparison to its rowdier neighbors such as Mad River and Nobles. Besides our trio, there were a handful of other patrons who seemed to stop by only for a quick beer or shot before heading on their way.
It would have been easy for the two bartenders behind Joey B's double-sided bar to stare at their phones or find other nonproductive ways to pass the time. This is Baltimore, and I've seen it happen too many times.
Instead, the young man and woman deftly worked the laid-back environment to their advantage, engaging us with light-hearted banter that felt rare and welcome, especially given our surroundings. Good bartenders know the art of conversation — when to crack a joke, when to ask a question, when to sit back and listen — and Joey B's two-person crew on Saturday made our first visit memorably cordial.
Customer service made up for a disappointing beer selection. Joey B's, which opened in August, is equipped for six drafts, but only had four in service on Saturday night. The available beers left plenty to be desired: Bud Light, Samuel Adams OctoberFest, and the two Maryland representatives, Tall Tales Johnny Appleseed and Flying Dog's K-9 Cruise Winter Ale. A couple of better options, Brewer's Art Ozzy Ale and Dogfish Head's 60 Minute IPA, were listed on the menu, but were unavailable according to our bartender.
We were more intrigued by the "specialty cocktails" list, which tried its best to shoehorn city branding into certain drinks (Baltimore Hon Tini, anyone?). If we're working our way up to the best-tasting cocktail, then the City Fair Crush ($8) starts at the bottom. The drink, made with Pinnacle citrus vodka, triple sec, club soda and lemonade, was garnished with a local festival favorite (a peppermint candy cane stuck through a lemon wedge) but was dull and not nearly sweet enough. The Fed Hillarita ($9) was an improvement, with a strong but well-balanced mixture of triple sec, Jose Cuervo tequila, lime juice, Cointreau and orange juice. It recalled a refreshing Tequila Sunrise.
The fight between the night's two best cocktails came down to the John Daily Tea ($9) and the Skinny Cucumber ($8). The former benefitted from the bartender brewing a fresh cup of tea for the cocktail, which also included Firefly vodka, lemonade and mint. The Skinny Cucumber, which is made with Skinny Girl Cucumber vodka and still felt sort of silly to say out loud, went down smoothest, thanks to the carbonation of the diet Sprite and the fragrant muddled mint and cucumbers.
At Joey B's, the beer let us down, the cocktails brightened our moods and the chatter with the staff and patrons satisfied most. It also was a reminder of the communal feeling a good bar can provide, even on your first trip there. When news of actor Paul Walker's death popped up on a customer's smartphone, everyone chimed in with his or her own memories. Was "Varsity Blues" his best film? Is "The Fast and the Furious" franchise better than it gets credit for? How were his eyes that blue? A bartender eventually found a "Fast and Furious" movie on cable, and I realized I'd likely never forget where I was when I heard Paul Walker died. Sad news aside, that's a sign of a good bar.
Joey B's Bar and Grille
Back story: This new neighborhood restaurant and bar replaced the Hill in August. Joey B is Joseph Bivona, the owner here and also of the Grille at Peerce's in Phoenix. Joey B's is a laidback sports bar with a new paint job and filled with Baltimore sports memorabilia.
Parking: Free and metered along the streets
Signature drink: The Skinny Cucumber ($8) was the most refreshing cocktail we tasted, and it won't put a dent in your daily caloric intake, if that matters to you.
Where: 1015 S. Charles St., Federal Hill
Open: Closed Monday and Tuesday; 3 p.m.-2 a.m. Wednesday-Friday; 11-2 a.m. Saturday; 9-2 a.m. Sunday