Give a nod to the iconic pink flamingo at Cafe Hon. (Photo: Courtesy of Cafe Hon)
Given that one of the city’s most-celebrated sons is the famously oddball cult film director John Waters (aka “the Pope of Trash”), it’s perhaps not surprising to find that an offbeat culture thrives in Baltimore.
You’ll quickly come to realize that the town also known as “Charm City” dishes out character in spades. Here’s where you can enjoy some of its quirky, retro or just plain weird attractions.
Taking its name (“hon”) from a term of endearment often deployed among the working-class residents of the Hampden neighborhood in which it’s located, Cafe Hon welcomes visitors with a two-story fiberglass pink flamingo suspended above its entrance.
Step inside — past the life-sized Elvis statue at the host stand — and settle into a leopard-print banquette. Cafe Hon’s menu offers a mix of classic comfort food, such as the meatloaf platter, and regional fare, including Maryland crab soup.
The Pink Flamingo, an enormous specialty cocktail made with Bacardi Black Razz, triple sec, cranberry and lemon-lime, arrives garnished with plastic tropical birds and flamingo-adorned straws.
The restaurant is also a venue for Baltimore’s annual HONfest. This street festival draws women sporting beehive hairdos, colorful dresses and cat’s-eye glasses to the Hampden neighborhood each June.
Doing the Lindy Hop and swing dancing may sound like pastimes reserved for nostalgic older generations, but tell that to the 20-something hipsters who flock to Mobtown Ballroom for dance lessons and sessions.
Housed in a restored 19th-century church in Baltimore’s Pigtown district, Mobtown Ballroom is neither a club nor a dance studio. It’s simply a welcoming space for dancing, meeting people and enjoying good conversation every Monday and Friday evening. You don’t even need to bring a partner.
Slinging a list of well-executed classic cocktails, the bartenders don’t miss a step, either.
The Bengies Drive-In Theatre
Full of retro charm and a claim to possessing the biggest movie theater screen in the U.S., The Bengies Drive-In Theatre in Middle River has been screening movies after dusk for more than 60 years. But it hasn’t lasted that long by indulging its clientele.
This drive-in is locally infamous for its lengthy list of strictly enforced house rules — distributed in booklet form upon arrival and then recited once again over the intercom prior to the screening.
Keep the comically ornery owner, and your companions, happy by adhering to the rules — no outside food, no running, keep the lights off — and soak up the old-time Americana vibes, amped up by the playing of the national anthem and vintage advertisements shown onscreen before the main feature.
American Visionary Art Museum
None, however, are quite so unique as the American Visionary Art Museum in Federal Hill, which is dedicated to outsider artists — those creative individuals who work outside of the mainstream art world. The museum holds a collection of more than 4,000 works by self-taught artists and hosts rotating themed exhibitions.
Located in the museum’s central plaza, you can’t miss the Giant Whirligig. This 55-foot-tall wind-powered sculpture was created by Vollis Simpson, the farmer, mechanic, World War II veteran and visionary artist who made his first kinetic sculpture out of a washing machine while stationed in the South Pacific.
If you are in town to get a taste of the source of John Waters’ creative genius, head for the independent bookstore Atomic Books in Hampden. Waters picks up his fan mail from there, so have a drink in the comic book–themed bar, write a letter, and leave it for him. You may even run in to the man himself. “If I were looking for new friends,” he once told TIME, “this is where I’d loiter.”
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