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Eats and Drinks

Businessman's Lunch

Downtown's White-Collar Workers Are Mum's The Word While Boozing At Break Time

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By Auriane de Rudder | Posted 9/20/2006

At noon, the Inner Harbor is buzzing with business. A four-member family, clad in matching crab-themed T-shirts, corrals little ones in line at the National Aquarium. A shirtless middle-aged jogger drips sweat on the promenade as he runs past several entertainers, who are juggling and singing for a crowd gathered at the amphitheater. Downtown workers fill the streets, escaping from offices large and small, dressed in an array of power suits, or khaki pants and collared shirts. Waiters at the popular lunchtime spot M&S Grill hurriedly attend to outdoor seating sections, occasionally glancing over at the historic ships floating in the harbor--proud monuments to the Chesapeake Bay's past. But it's not outside where people are drinking like sailors.

This year, City Paper hit the pavement in search of downtown Baltimore's booziest business people, curious about their previously undisclosed--and perhaps unauthorized--drinking habits. Is the Land of Pleasant Living also home to three-martini lunches? Not according to the suit- and tie-wearing patrons lunching at downtown bars. But ask the people who pour the booze, and you'll get a different story.

"We get a good amount of people who come in on their lunch breaks and drink," says Jeff Parrish, a 21-year-old waiter at Capitol City Brewing Co. "We're a brewery, so people may not expect to get as drunk as they do. We push the beer on them.

"I've had a few people get wasted. Like, whoa wasted. All falling over in suits and ties. It's hard to imagine them even trying to go back to the office."

Inside Capitol City, businessmen and -women sit discussing work, children, and love interests amid the clattering of dishes as busy bussers clear tables. Two women, dressed in nearly identical gray business suits face each other. Between them are four empty pint glasses, each marked with a faint trace of foam around the rim and small pools of amber liquid at the bottom. When asked if they drink at lunch time, the more assertive of the two defensively spits, "We never drink at lunch. Maybe one every now and then, but it's very seldom." When I gesture at the empty pint glasses, two of them stained with berry-colored lipstick, she replies, "Those were here." A waitress smirks as she passes.

At the neighboring Hooters, Doug Morton, who manages a car dealership, sips a pint of beer and explains, "I'm on an extended lunch break." Dressed in a blue T-shirt and shorts, Morton snaps open a crab legs and adds, "I basically run the store, so I can come and go as I want."

Standing across from Morton is Tenisha Gaynor, who has bartended at Hooters for three years. Defying the restaurant's slogan, "Delightfully Tacky Yet Unrefined," Gaynor is articulate and poised, even in those undeniably bad orange shorts and Debbie Gibson-style scrunchy socks. "We get mostly suits and ties around lunchtime," she says. "And people will definitely have a few beers." When asked if she drinks at lunchtime, Gaynor says, "No way. We're not allowed to drink at all."

Back at M&S Grill, a bartender prepares beverages for a cavalcade of stressed-out servers--some wait for iced tea, some for water. Others wait on cocktails and beers, but for whom, exactly? The bar sits empty with the exception of a few older gentlemen sipping tea and reading newspapers. A 4-year-old business-boy in training, dressed in khakis and a blue button-down shirt, livens up the scene with a shrill scream when asked by his similarly dressed daddy to eat his vegetables. A neighboring overweight man ignores his greens as well and spoons cream sauce and butter onto his complimentary basket of bread. Sandwiched between temper tantrums and unhealthy indulgence--two things common among heavy drinkers-- I expect to see some alcohol consumption. But it's not until I relocate that the action really begins.

The dining room of M&S Grill is a sea of white-collared sharks, sucking down beers and mixed drinks while chatting up clients on cell phones. Seated directly across from me, three co-workers converse. Empty beer bottles line their table, and small-stemmed brandy glasses discreetly deliver sips of Amstel Light to their mouths. When approached, the three drinkers deny any frequent lunchtime liquor indulgence.

"I don't even drink once a week, really. I think it's OK to relax, though. Have a beer or two," says Earl, an art director for a publishing firm and the most professionally dressed of the three. When asked if his boss knows about his occasional drinking, Earl--who bears an uncanny resemblance to Stephen Root's Milton Waddams character in Office Space--points across the table to Sarah, a bright-eyed brunette who chimes in, "I'm his boss and I have no idea that he drinks."

Sarah goes on to explain that today is a special occasion involving client meetings, and that traditionally the three workers wouldn't be away from the office at all. While she insists she doesn't drink at lunch-- though the majority of the Amstel bottles are positioned next to her entrée--she clarifies, "I don't have a problem with people drinking at lunch. I think it's uncivilized not to have a glass of wine with lunch, or a beer. I mean, I sit at a desk all day. That'll drive you crazy."

At Burke's, a dark and musty sailor-themed restaurant at Lombard and Light streets, I encounter a similar drinker's excuse. "Today is kind of a special day," one man informs me as he strokes his Santa-like white beard. "We can drink at lunch with a boss or something, but today is different because we're attending a conference--you know, a meet and greet." His co-worker, who appears gaunt in comparison to the jolly Mr. Claus, scoffs at the idea of revealing more about their lunchtime activities, and sums up his insistence on anonymity in one statement: "We're federal employees."

When asked if he serves any lunchtime lushes on a regular basis, Burke's bartender Keith scoffs and replies: "Sure. We welcome people who drink on their lunch breaks. We've even served people who've tried pot before and are--now don't tell anyone this--promiscuous." Touché.

"If you're looking for real boozers, though, watch for people on jury duty," Keith says. "They're the real drinkers." A not so reassuring thought in a state with the death penalty.

Peter Langan, a 24-year-old server at one of the harbor's busiest lunch stops--he declines to say which one--says he doesn't see much drinking in the business district. "These restaurants, they're really not the kind of place where you'll find drunks," he says. "But when I worked at Midtown Yacht Club, I'd get the [employees from a local publishing house]. Some of them would come in at noon, and by 2 be slurring and be like, `I was gonna go back to work, but . . . '"

At Rams Head Live several business-casual-clad bar patrons sit with elbows atop a cold, steel bar as roadies, visible through four large panel windows facing the venue's club side, assemble stage equipment for the evening's concert. The patrons, one female, two male, are hesitant to answer any questions about their personal habits, but when asked if they have co-workers who get drunk at lunchtime, Joe, the man seated closest to me, blurts out, "Can I count myself as a co-worker?" At that, the three titter nervously and clam up. Once outside of the Rams Head, a roadie named Otto, complete with a long, greasy pony tail and a sweat-dampened cutoff metal T-shirt, laughs off my questions and says, "We're fuckin' roadies, man. We just drink all day."

I continue my search for afternoon alchies at ESPN Zone but again find that the only person willing to talk is, you got it, another bartender. This time, our conversation strays from the usual chat on white-collar workers and moves to another class of daytime drinkers. The bartender, who has cropped spiky blond hair and wide blue eyes, informs me that boozing bankers should be the least of my concern. "I've seen some serious drinkers," she says. "Some of them make you nervous, you know? Like construction workers, those guys who are dealing with heavy equipment." I agree with her and have a garish flash of Otto the Roadie being crushed by improperly assembled stage props, his greasy pony tail protruding from the wreckage like the Wicked Witch of the East's striped stockings. "And group chaperones. They'll leave the kids and come get shots. Now that's scary."

What exactly is up with daytime drinking downtown? Seems that, much like downtown businesses themselves, these down-low drinkers--tight-lipped but not exactly strait-laced--have formed an exclusive club that the rest of Baltimore just isn't a part of. As for us here at Baltimore's Most Lush-a-licious Alternative Weekly? Well, after compiling this year's extensive list of the best eats and drinks in the city, you can be damn sure we'll be getting cocktailed morning, noon, and night. So here's to you, Baltimore, and remember: Everyone's collar is the same color in the bar lights.

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