Last night I went to Rocket To Venus, the new restaurant-bar in Hampden that is Baltimore's current defacto Hipster Mecca. Old School Hampdenites will recognize the location at 3360 Chestnut Avenue as the old Showalters neighborhood bar, but to a new generation it might as well be called Club Charles North - that is, if the Charles combined its ambience and audience with the Zodiac's menu and eating options all under one roof. It's the latest entreprenurial endeavor by co-owner Geoff Danek (or is it Dannick? - I've seen it spelled both ways), who already has enjoyed great success with The Avenue's insanely popular Holy Frijoles and looks to have another winner on his hands around the corner from his Mexican cantina. Allegedly, the new hotspot's name is based on an unsuccessful Hampden-to-Venus rocket launched back in the early 20th century.
Admittedly, walking into the packed room on a busy Friday night, I immediately felt uneasy, suffering a sudden onset of Boho Vertigo - that unsettling vibe I get whenever I'm around try-too-hard hipsters, indie rockers, art school bohemians and trendy scenemakers with their predictable garb, hairstyles, tattoos and attitudes. Peering through a light veil of smoke (always a sign of a popular hangout), I thought I saw music-arts-zines promoter Todd Lesser at the end of the bar, but it was only a clone. Likewise there were at least two standard-issue goth nubiles with Louise Brooks doos sitting at the bar, two post-Grungers in plaid lumberjacks shirts, a couple of aging art school babes desperately trying to remain edgy, a Napoleon Dynamite wannabe, and the usual assortment of current vogue facial hair types (goatees, Van Dykes, mutton chop sideburns) and corrective eyewear styles (big thick Buddy Holly frames, the Colonel Sanders rimless bottom specs, etc.). In fact, my dining companion Scott Huffines remarked that he felt like he was in a scene from a Dan Clowes Eightball comic or perhaps Pete Bagge's slacker saga Hate. "There are so many stereotypes here you could play Hipster Bingo all night," Scott opined. "And everyone here has a Flickr page."
Yes, the usual suspects were all here. But while I wanted to dislike it for that reason alone, I had to admit I liked it.
For one thing, it has booths. For another, they take reservations so you can avoid long waits for tables. The smoke's not too bad and - here's the kicker - the food's good, both for carnivores and for veggies alike (Sloppy Tofus, Veggie Wimpies, Grilled Cheese, etc.). Not only that but they actually promote and celebrate the most maligned vegetable of them all - the Brussel Sprout. (Full disclosure: I love Brussel Sprouts. When my Mom was still alive, she would always make me Brussel Sprouts for my birthday. That's true love.) Admittedly, they are an aquired taste, and while some detractors have likened their taste to what they imagine Kermit the Muppet's balls would taste like (perhaps only Miss Piggy would know for sure), Rocket To Venus impressario Geoff Danek is clearly a fan of the oft-ostracized mini-cabbage delicacy known to aficionados as brassica oleracea.
Danek, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Jeff Beck, is a hard-working and passionate entrepreneur who clearly loves what he's doing. Just ask him about the Internet jukebox, a rocket science-complex contraption he helped build (how appropos for a place called Rocket To Venus!), which is basically a computer holding over 1,250 CDs and MP3s.
And the staff is a Who's Who of Baltimore's alternative arts scene. Members of Lake Trout and Two If By Sea, girlfriends of indie rockers, Video Americain alumnae and artists, photogs, and assorted alternatypes are all on hand in their never-out-of-fashion black garb.
And if there was any doubt about this being the new Club Charles, consider this: CC regular John Waters has already been spotted there.
Anyway, I'll be back for the Brussel Sprouts. I want to dip them in that spicy Thai Mussels dish on the menu!
Rocket To Venus Website
The Hipster Handbook
Mondo Defekto Review
Brussels Sprout (Wikipedia)
Baltimore Sun Review (Elizabeth Large)
Baltimore City Paper Review (Richard Gorelick)