A bell rings and the regulars at Friends Grille in Pigtown break out in joyous cheers and tap plastic cups filled with their liquor or cocktail of choice.

It’s somebody’s birthday and a reason to celebrate.

When you hear the bell at this popular bar, it’s not signaling the end of the school day or that it’s time to wake up or that your dessert’s done baking. At Friends Grille, the ringing sound means the celebration of milestone moments in people’s lives — anniversaries, graduations, promotions.

While some people go to bars to drink away their sorrows, Friends Grille has created a place where they encourage the exact opposite. They want to hear good news — big or small.

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“We will celebrate just about any and every thing here at Friends Grille,” said D. Greene, one of three owners of the bar.

Aaron Leighton, the birthday honoree on this particular Friday night, comes to Friends because his friend Nikki Robinson is the head bartender and he likes the mood they are trying to create. His chest-length dreadlocks swayed as he took a celebratory 33rd birthday shot of reposado tequila with two other patrons.

“It’s close-knit, like everyone here knows each other, so it’s like family. You come here and everybody behind the bar will greet you by first name,” Leighton said.

Around Leighton, flat screen televisions hang from light wood walls and a couple in the corner plays Connect Four next to a poster of Muhammad Ali. Quirky décor from the basement — left behind from the other bars that operated from the building before — are dispersed throughout: a pair of ice skates, a Bob’s Big Boy sign and a hockey stick.

Head bartender Nikki Robinson and kilted regular Bill Johnson chat at the bar. (J. M. Giordano for The Baltimore Banner)

Greene said the bell was once used to celebrate Ravens touchdowns, but it slowly evolved into a hats-off to patrons and employees. No particular moment started the custom, he said. But people have really gotten into the tradition of sharing their own or another’s good news. In a world often focused on bad news, people find it refreshing to refocus on the good things in life.

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On this Friday night, Lizzo’s “About Damn Time” plays over the speakers. Conversations about inflation, relationships and expensive gas fill the room. People watch the Celtics and Warriors game, stopping to fist dap or hug others as they come in.

Kristin Abernathy considers herself the unofficial mayor of the bar because she knows the staff and other regulars so well. On this Friday, she picks up a conversation with Jonathan Smith, another regular. They’re both at the bar, located in a small gray rowhome on Carroll Street, at least once a week.

Abernathy celebrated her birthday at the bar, and Smith was acknowledged at Friends with a bell ring in honor of expecting twins in July. Abernathy, who lives a few blocks away, said the bar helped her meet people in the neighborhood.

“It’s like going to your auntie’s basement and all of your cousins are already there,” she said, quickly surveying the room.

Robinson and fellow bartender Malinda Williams, dressed all in black paired with hoop earrings, work in harmony as the bar gets busier. The “dynamic duo,” Williams says. As they reach for bottles, talk to patrons and switch positions, the scrape of the metal scoop against ice cubes signals the start of another drink.

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“To be a neighborhood bar, you have to know the neighborhood, and we do a good job of knowing all of our neighbors,” Robinson said.

The bar also has a social mission. Greene said he hires what some may call the “unemployable” and those who want to get their start in the food and beverage industry.

That’s something Tramont “Trae” Evans likes. The regular, who often has a Loose Cannon IPA in his hand, started coming to the bar with wife, LaKisha, when it opened in 2019.

Regular Greg Giles laughs it up with fellow regulars. (J. M. Giordano for The Baltimore Banner)

Friends is the “Cheers” experience Trae always wanted — a “communal hole” and “fusion of the neighborhood,” he said. The bar staff once rang the bell to celebrate their three children’s graduations.

“Pretty much every special moment we come here first,” he said. “Even if we are going somewhere else, we stop in here because this is family, so we celebrate with them and then we go.”

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Vanessa Simon, the head chef from Atlanta with a dimple in her left cheek, personally shuffles out food: plates of tacos assembled on metal holders, golden-brown fried fish on white bread with fries and wings drenched in sauces or dusted with seasoning. The wings, some patrons have said, are the best.

By 10:00 p.m., all of the tables and seats are taken, and an eclectic crowd of people wearing New Balance sneakers, hats, white-tees, a kilt, a birthday crown, camouflage shirts and Pac-Man socks make their way to the bar.

As the stragglers come in through the front door, they look around to find people they might know. Or at least someone worth eventually calling a friend.


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