Two Women from Mt. Vernon

by Scooter Holt

The bar business is maledriven, let’s face it. The hours stink, making relationships near-impossible. The customers can be unruly at best. The language tends to run into the gutter faster than the drink. But before I get a thousand e-mails calling me a sexist, let me tell you about two of my favorite downtown bars that are women-owned.

It was Friday night, and my trigger-finger was itching for a “Stoli rocks,” always a great bullet to load your “drunk gun” with. So I tipped on over to Dionysus, right at Charles Street and Preston on Mt. Vernon’s north face, and it was teeming with Baltimore wildlife.

Heading down into the basement bar, I’m reminded why I love this place so much. It isn’t completely revealed to you until you reach the bottom of the steps, so every visit is like walking into a surprise party. But, to no surprise, it was packed.

The ceilings are low, as is the lighting, instantly making the space more intimate. The stone fireplace is always glowing with candle-light. If the art school/hipster set could ski, this would be their lodge. My favorite feature? COUCHES. I like to spread out when I tie on a good drunk, so this place has me covered. The bookshelf is loaded with board games and quaint books, making it properly equipped for long-term drinking. Plan on doing some serious hang-time here? There’s a menu as well. Everything from a cheese board to New York Strip is represented, with a smattering of sandwiches thrown in for good measure. Owner Lynn Hafner calls this style of bar the “European public house,” and I think that has a good sound to it.

Lynn has been working in the Baltimore bar business for some time. Before opening Dionysus, she spent several years bartending at the infamous Club Charles, where she realized that the bar business was in her blood to stay. A few years back, a friend had seen the Dionysus space with a “for lease” sign on it, and suggested that Lynn take a peek. Within six months, she closed the deal and, within 45 days, the doors of Dionysus were open, but not without a great deal of sweat.

“I always say ‘It’s the house that Baltimore built,’” Lynn told me, referring to all the tip money she had saved to start her business. She also admits that the job is often brutal, rarely getting a moment to herself. Thankfully, her manager/head bartender, Andrew Miller, has helped alleviate some of that pressure over the last year.

Dionysus has everything from Pabst Blue Ribbon in a can, to an eclectic mix of micro-brews, all the way up to top-shelf liquor, making this a must-stop on any downtown drinking tour. Happy hour runs all night on Sundays, with $2 Yuengling drafts and $2 seasonal drafts.

After leaving Lynn, I rolled myself down to the south face of Mt. Vernon to another favored watering-hole, Mick O’Sheas, right in the heart of the business district on North Charles Street. This bar is well-known as the avid drinker’s “Ground Zero” on St. Patrick’s Day as the parade strolls right past it, but there’s so much more to this place. On the weekends, this neighborhood tavern doubles as a live-music venue, and Scythian was jamming this particular Friday night.

Steph Niehenke and her brother Dave have owned this bar for seven years, but have been working in it for the last fourteen. At 34, this is just about all of Steph’s working career. Dave had run the bar for the previous owners, and brought Steph in as a weekend bartender. When “Mick’s” came up for sale, the two jumped at the chance.

Being another one who built a bar on tip money, she had thankfully saved all of her loose coins around the house, and it had added up. “I went to a Coinstar and dumped in every bit of change I had.” Seven years later, it has clearly paid off.

Now, why is this place more than a St. Patty’s day hangout? Easy. Not only is there a broad menu of comfy pub fare to soak up the booze, but it is by far the best Guinness draught you can get in the State of Maryland. And that’s not according to me! Mick O’Sheas won this years’ Guinness “Perfect Pour” contest, which judges an establishment on quality of pour (trickier than one would think with Guinness), chill, and overall presentation. Winning this title ranked them number one out of all the Irish bars in Maryland, and number seven nationally.

So, as you can see, a once male-dominated profession is clearly being perfected by two of Baltimore’s hardest-working women. But that doesn’t mean that just anyone can cut the mustard. Both of these women will quickly tell you it isn’t easy, and you have to be tough as nails to get things done. There is something else they’ll tell you you’ll need a set of, and, ironically, that part of the anatomy is reserved for men!

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