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"Do you like to travel?" the stylish blonde asks the preppy young man sitting next to her. "I love adventure!" And before he can answer, she's talking about Swiss Miss cocoa mix.
That's my cue to focus on the midnight supper in front of me: a half-order of the hummus duo — one a traditional chickpea, the other a red-pepper variety — served with a generous stack of warm pita slices. The creamy hummus comes dotted with a couple of salty Kalamata olives and three soft, buttery cloves of roasted garlic, as well as a sprinkling of feta cheese and a spoonful of chopped tomato.
From my vantage at the center of the bar, I can see a cook working in the tiny kitchen. I seem to be the only one eating at this hour, but Sonia and the other bartender, Jeremy, assure me that 1 a.m. always brings another wave of hungry prowlers.
I eat too much hummus and finish only one of my spicy Cajun soft tacos. Jeremy boxes up my leftovers, and I take a big gulp of tonic water while settling my bill. The two attractive young women now to my right have very large martinis in front of them. They speak very little to each other and not at all to me — highly appropriate behavior.
At that hour, there's often nothing left to say.
4:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Majestic Restaurant
Ever since my drinking days ended, I've found that pretty much any variation on the happy-hour concept that doesn't include food is an incredible waste of time. (I took the opposite stance during my boozy years, ignoring countless free buffets when local bars and restaurants offered such enticements.) No, the serenity of sobriety means that today I disregard the sparkle of track lighting on bottle glass but fondle a printed happy-hour menu with the same reverence I might pay the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The four-hour special at the Majestic's grand old bar isn't sacred, but it allows me to eat well, and cheaply, from 2 to 6 p.m. And if I did drink, I'd have a friend in this bar's Sean Moriarty, a master mixologist who's also a charming old-school bartender, straight out of a William Saroyan play.
The special is good enough that I've brought my friend Carol, who pointedly pays no attention to a chubby insurance salesman sitting on her other side. He's trying to flirt. We're trying to taste a few of the $5 appetizers, including ground-lamb sliders and sassy little fried risotto balls stuffed with cheddar. We order a crabby crab cake that's big enough to share and comes with "Majestic fries," deep-fried hunks of potato as large as fresh-hewn wood shards.
According to Moriarty, Friday is the busiest happy hour here. It's a collision of downtown's after-work crowd and its before-theater set, and he says it makes this tiled room happily noisy. I'll stick to Wednesday afternoon.
9:30 a.m. Thursday, 12 Baltimore Café
In the historic Hotel Phillips, the subterranean dining room, formerly known as the Sir Loin Room, Walt Bodine's Steakhouse, and Platters, is still there but no longer used as a restaurant. The street-level bar now does double duty as both saloon and dining room, and it's called the 12 Baltimore Café.