I sat alone at the Owl Bar, waiting for my friends to arrive. It’s an old, scarred bar that probably has absorbed many secrets, tears and laughter. It’s been here for more than 100 years. Back in 1903 I couldn’t have entered the bar, much less order that Bloody Mary I had. (Men only were allowed to enter back then.)
Dark and moody, the atmosphere was quiet now but I wondered what it must have been like a century ago. I imagined H.L. Mencken holding forth in a corner (Everybody probably heard him). Did Scott and Zelda stop here on their way back to their apartment downtown? What did the former King of England order when he came here with Baltimorean Wallis Warfield Simpson?
The Owl, tucked in the back of the wedding cake of a former hotel, the Belvedere, (it’s now condominiums), is one of two bar/restaurants on the property. The other is the Thirteenth Floor. That one has the views; this one has the history.
The Owl opened in a time when Baltimore attracted the famous and the infamous. Times were good; Baltimore was booming. And the party, according to the Owl’s menu was non-stop.
But when Prohibition threatened to turn out the lights on the party, the Owl found a way to keep the booze flowing.
Those owls high above the bar were a kind of a look-out. When their red eyes were blinking, a shipment had been made and feds weren’t around. No blinking, sorry, no liquor. I don’t know how they kept their code a secret, a well-known secret at that, but the Owl survived Prohibition and the rest of the Twentieth Century. I’ve been a visitor off and on since, well, let’s say sometime last century, and it always seems the same.
And yet, really, it has changed. The menu has been updated — there’s even a pizza oven over in a corner. And the bar is well-stocked.
My friends finally arrived and we sat down to wonderful salads and crabcakes and plenty of conversation. I was glad, though I’d arrived early, to drink in a little Baltimore history with my bloody Mary.
© Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman