A veteran bartender and consultant, Chelsea Gregoire has worked at various Baltimore bars, including True Chesapeake Oyster Co., Ida B’s Table, and Charm City Meadworks. But their unique approach to hospitality also comes from a less expected place: Christian college Liberty University, where they earned two degrees in theology.
“I went to a pretty conservative school, and in the process of that, I became really passionate about the idea of what it looks like to build community, and what it looks like to build those third spaces outside of home or work, and what those building blocks of community look like,” says Gregoire.
“When I came out, my options for doing something in my field kind of dried up, but I was also working in the restaurant industry, which as we know is far more accepting of different people and different backgrounds,” they continue. “I determined that if I’m committed to this idea of a third place, a bar feels very much also like a church.”
Proof of concept: Gregoire’s first bar, Church, which they opened in Baltimore’s Old Goucher neighborhood in September with their partner Marisa Dobson.
Housed in a 19th-century Quaker house and designed in collaboration with Tiffanni Reidy, the moody space includes subtle religious references like the dining room’s walnut pew seating and a striking pipe organ sculpture that hangs above the bar.
However, a theme bar Church is not. “Knowing that religious trauma is a big thing in the United States, we wanted people to feel comfortable to be there and be themselves,” says Gregoire. Rather, Church’s spirit of community presents itself through a well-rounded cocktail program and an inclusive atmosphere that welcomes guests and staff of all stripes.
Around eleven cocktails long, the menu changes quarterly but always includes The Host, a proprietary house Martini, and the Mass Appeal, an Old Fashioned variation made with rye whiskey, a syrup made from the peppery grain of paradise spice, an apple tincture, and orange bitters. A variety of alcohol levels and pours are on offer, and the menu indicates to guests which drinks can be made without alcohol.
“People hear the word collaboration and they think it’s just working together as a team, but it’s also about humility and stepping back when you need to and letting other people take the lead and take charge when they need to.”
“We have a commitment to drinks that are approachable,” says Gregoire. “They reference classics, they reference things that people are familiar with, but they’re just slightly different, [so] it’s a nice inroad for people to maybe try something new,” they say.
Gregoire hopes Church can eventually become a gathering place where local nonprofits host events, but the bar’s commitment to community starts with the staff. Tips are pooled between all employees based on hours worked, and in-house learning programs cover topics like financial literacy and mental health. Cocktail creation is a team effort, and Church’s most recent menu was a collaboration between Gregoire and lead bartenders Jessie Marrero and Chels Toback.
“People hear the word collaboration and they think it’s just working together as a team, but it’s also about humility and stepping back when you need to and letting other people take the lead and take charge when they need to,” says Gregoire.
These are the three drinks that Gregoire, Marrero, and Toback say best embody the spirit of Church.
Clear spirits, blanc vermouth, bitters, brine
Church’s community ethos is exemplified by this house Martini that’s designed for sharing.
“I thought [about] the idea of how many Martini preferences and specs we have floating around out there and wanted to create something that incorporated a little bit of everyone’s taste or preferred specs, then balance them so anyone can recognize their personal Martini within The Host,” says Gregoire.
Although the exact ingredients are kept secret, Gregoire says they include clear spirits, blanc vermouth, bitters, and a “briney element.” The mixture is batched, kept in the freezer at negative five degrees, and served to order. Guests can order a single Martini or a 750-milliliter bottle for the table, which comes with garnish options of house-marinated olives, pink pearl onions, and preserved lemons.
“I have heard on multiple occasions that it’s the best Martini people have ever had,” says Gregoire.
Paranubes rum, hopped grapefruit cordial, ginger syrup, lime juice
Lead bartender Chels Toback took flavor cues from a grapefruit IPA to create this hop-infused Daiquiri variation that would help transition the winter menu into spring. “We wanted to elevate the grapefruit component, and we happened to have hops in-house, so we just put them together and it was a very happy combination,” they say.
The hops, which appear in a grapefruit cordial and as a garnish on top of the drink, also play off the grassy notes of a funky Oaxacan rum, while lime juice and ginger syrup add tartness and heat.
As with all the drinks on the menu, this cocktail was born out of collaboration. Toback credits their fellow bartender Jessie Marrero with empowering them to “be creative in this space but put my own spin on things, and feel supported within that as well.”
Old Forester 100 Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon, Laird’s Applejack, coconut milk, fennel-infused apple syrup, lemon juice, Bittermens Boston Bittahs
Confronted with an excess of coconut milk and apple syrup used in some of the bar’s other cocktails, lead bartender Jessie Marrero repurposed the leftovers to create this clarified bourbon milk punch. Both a nod to her Puerto Rican heritage and innovative way to solve waste issues, the lactose-free drink also “emphasizes that we’re looking out for as many guests as possible,” she says.
Marrero infuses the apple syrup with fresh fennel, which she adds to a base cocktail of overproof bourbon, applejack, lemon juice, and citrus-forward bitters. She then incorporates the coconut milk and allows the mixture to fully integrate before filtering it three times, creating a smooth, tropical-leaning flavor profile that softens the burn of the bourbon. The drink takes about two hours to create from start to finish.
“It’s definitely a labor of love,” says Marrero.