There’s a phrase an old colleague of mine from Mason City, Iowa used to say about his days covering local government.
He said he was constantly “buried in bureaucracy.” Covering county government here, that phrase seems even more applicable to my daily work now.
So when Features Editor Mallory Panuska said I should cover the downtown Frederick bar scene—essentially my neighborhood, as downtown is currently my home—it didn’t take much convincing.
Frederick isn’t my first home, though. That’s Doylestown, a suburb just under 30 miles north of Philadelphia. After graduating from Temple University in May 2017, I moved to Mason City, Iowa in August of that year, covering north central Iowa for about a year before starting here since last September.
Even though I’ve lived downtown since mid-January, readers might be surprised to hear this reporter hasn’t frequented its bars every week, let alone every day. That’s probably because of two reasons: finances are tight for a young reporter, and my dad has always been a frugal person, which is a trait probably passed down to me.
Each bar, though, tells a different story—from the crowd it attracts to what adorns its walls. Dive bars often have a negative connotation for being dirty and kind of slapped together. I love them, because people there tend to be some of the most down-to-Earth characters and easy to have a conversation with.
The truth is, I’m a regular at breweries, mostly for the solid beer. But this state has strict regulations on when they close, so when they shut down, bars are what’s left slinging the booze. It’s evident the following four bars are institutions of downtown Frederick nightlife.
Enough about me. Here are those four bars. My alcoholic beverage at all of them? Jameson on the rocks.
543 N. Market St., Frederick
Standing near one of Frederick’s two Market Street fire stations, this low-key bar is probably the one place that fits into the dive bar category.
The security guy checked my ID, and then Sharpied a G onto my right hand. After walking up the short stoop and into the place, I immediately plopped my butt down at the corner of the bar, maybe four steps from the front door.
It was about 9:15 p.m. on June 22, but the dimly-lit room was already filled with a lively crowd, and PBR, National Bohemian and Narragansett beer cans lined the bar. Patrons were mixed—some appeared to be near my age (24) but the guy to my right had to be in his 50s, at least.
You don’t go to Guido’s if you want a craft beer or fancy cocktail. But if you want cheap beer or basic mixed drinks, then it’s your spot. The ambiance—stickers and posters covering every inch of the walls, Caddyshack playing on the front TV and old-school gumball/candy dispensers near the front door—was an immediate draw for me.
Another draw are the food specials $5 burgers after 7 p.m. Monday, and 35-cent wings after 7 p.m. Wednesday. Trivia nights are Thursdays and live music is typically on Friday and Saturdays.
Perhaps the most notable object behind the bar was a large Smirnoff vodka bottle on the top shelf, designed like one of those hand-sanitizer bottles you find in bathrooms and at hospitals.
Guido’s reminds me of a bar you and your friends head to if you don’t want to break your wallet, and are looking for good neighborhood conversation. It was my first time there, and I’m already a fan.
Olde Towne Tavern
325 N. Market St., Frederick
Olde Towne, an establishment that opened in 1976, is also known for its cheap drinks and food specials. There was a $2 cover, for live music that was happening in the back room of the bar.
I grabbed a seat at the one end of the bar, and again noticed how mixed the crowd was, not only in age, but also race and ethnicity.
Along with cheap beer and liquor, Olde Towne offers pitchers of draft beer. Most are your staples, like PBR or Yuengling, but there was Snake Dog IPA by Flying Dog. There were several pitchers floating around the bar and tables.
There are drink specials every day of the week, and on Saturday, that included $5 peach shooters. Thursday to Saturday, there are $4 rail specials.
Burger night is 7-11 p.m. Tuesday, something my colleague Ryan Marshall has taken advantage of as they only cost $3.50. Karoke is Wednesday nights and there are Open Mic nights on Sunday.
The bar was better-lit than Guido’s, and old-school signage is laid out across a brick walk opposite the bar. Perhaps most notably, that includes the Olde Towne Tavern wooden sign, with big block letters and a horse at the bottom.
Although not a dive, Olde Towne certainly shares the neighborhood-type bar atmosphere. It’s evident that almost everyone in there except me knew the bartenders and servers well, as was the case with Guido’s.
Those servers and bartenders were hustling Saturday, and that’s the sign of a good bar. That level of service goes a long way in retaining a crowd.
Olde Towne, like Guido’s isn’t flashy, but it does the basics well, and it’s easy to see why the bar has been in business for more than four decades.
24 S. Market St., Frederick
Wag’s has one important distinction among all four bars I went to Saturday: it’s the only place you have to head underground to enter.
The other notable one: they offer 75-cent Yuengling drafts during happy hour, which is 4-7 p.m. Monday and Tuesday.
Space is tight, but comfortable. I would equate it to your typical man cave. Yuengling is the only beer on tap, but the happy hour here every day is solid. Two-for-one on all domestic bottles, rail liquor and house wine from 3-7 p.m. Wag’s also offers a two-for-one beer and rail drink special after 9 p.m. Friday.
A younger crowd was on-hand Saturday night, and my editor described the place as a “college bar,” which is a sensible assessment. There were, however, people who appeared to be in their 30s chatting with the bartender.
That bartender became the best one of the evening, for my money, when three young men and a woman entered and walked up to the bar. Only one of them, after the bartender checked, had legitimate ID. Others were trying to use other people’s driver licenses to score a drink.
She handled the situation well, and within five-ten minutes, all of them left. She summarized to a regular: “They’re not worth a $1,000 fine.”
Outside of that event, Wag’s offers a good amount of food specials, and the prices are reasonable—their “Wrap of the Week” was a cheeseburger wrap for $7.15.
Mirrors cover behind the bar and most of the wall across. A Marilyn Monroe cutout poster says hello in the middle.
Like Guido’s, the space can become very intimate with a large enough crowd. But what probably sets Wag’s apart is the happy hour, one of the best in town—too bad this reporter works into the evening most nights.
209 N. Market St., Frederick
This Irish bar has a special connection to me. My bedroom windows look out across the street to it, and I often joke that if Bushwaller’s goes out of business, downtown Frederick is in trouble.
That’s because the place is almost always busy, especially from Thursday-Sunday night. Patrons frequently spill out onto the street for smoke breaks/conversation, while a cover band plays music from the bar’s rear.
On Saturday, the cover was $5 to see the Alan Scott Band. Another notable thing about Bushwaller’s is it has the best draft selection of any of the four bars. There’s Guinness, of course, but there is also an assortment of IPAs, sours and ciders to choose from about a dozen or so taps.
There’s also a lot of liquor, from bottom-shelf booze to some more expensive brands, including a favorite of mine, Laphroaig (a Scottish whiskey with a distinct smoky flavor).
When cover bands fill the bar with sound, Bushwaller’s is probably the liveliest bar in Frederick. Its regulars and attendees were mostly younger, but there were a few people probably in their 40s sprinkled throughout.
It’s easy to see why people come back and the place is continuously packed: there’s live music Thursday through Sunday, there’s trivia Monday and karaoke Tuesday, along with $2 off Irish beer and whiskey.
The phrase has been repeated throughout this piece, but if Saturday’s atmosphere at Bushwaller’s didn’t scream “neighborhood tavern,” I don’t know what does.
Many Irish bars can fill into a dime-a-dozen mold, but where Bushwaller’s shines is its ability to make patrons feel comfortable amid an otherwise chaotic environment. It’s not “Cheers,” but it’s pretty close.
There’s one important point I haven’t addressed in any of these four reviews: there are plenty of other bars in Frederick to explore. Most of those, however, are further up the scale in overall elegance and ambiance.
Bushwaller’s, Guido’s, Olde Towne Tavern and Wag’s are all down-to-Earth establishments. If you made me pick one of the four, though, Guido’s—a bar I hadn’t visited before Saturday—is my favorite.
That’s because like most dive bars, its clientele is laid-back and easy to converse with. All four bars share that characteristic, but there’s a certain charm about Guido’s, mainly because of its simplicity and ability to do a lot with a little.
No matter where you might go in Frederick, make sure you patronize these four bars. They all have bartenders and servers simply trying to make a living. Tipping them fairly and often is the least many of us should do.