The definitive Fort Avenue bar crawl
Since today is Sunday, I thought I'd dish a longer bloggy than normal. It's well worth an extended read. Why? because I didn't write it.
A couple years ago, John Woestendiek penned the best Fort Avenue bar crawl story in the history of this newspaper.
I say this because I know for a fact H.L. Mencken did not publish one himself. He was too busy writing about "important" issues and the like to lower himself to write about bar history.
But I digress.
Here, without further adieu, is Woestendiek's bar-by-bar profile of Fort Avenue. Since this story originally ran, Truman's has been reopened as Luca's Cafe and the Vine has been torn down.
Here we go ...
By John Woestendiek
Fifty years after it opened, the Victory Tavern had become a haunt for the defeated.
Outside, prostitutes paced past a stern, if grammatically incorrect, sign on the once-proud bar's peeling paint exterior. "If Your Not Buying," it warned, "Don't Come In." Inside, drugs were bought and sold, and the patrons were a glum, down-on-their-luck bunch.Everybody didn't know your name at the Victory Tavern, nor did anyone really want to.
That was less than two years ago. Step inside today and you will find well-dressed, wine-sipping young professionals, two flat-panel televisions and lively discussions about mutual funds or the playful impertinence of the zinfandel - a scene so civilized you would think it was an entirely different bar in an entirely different neighborhood.
And, essentially, it is.
The Victory, as it was named after the outbreak of World War II, is now the Vine. The corner it sits on - Fort Avenue at Hanover Street - is changing as well, part of a neighborhood once considered plain old South Baltimore, but now increasingly referred to as "Federal Hill South."
What's going on along Fort Avenue and elsewhere in a changing Baltimore is gentrification: Young, moneyed professionals move in. Prices and taxes go up. Older, working-class residents move out.
What is gained in the transition is immediately visible - from roof decks to day spas, from coffeehouses to condos. What is lost along the road to historic Fort McHenry, first paved in 1852, is less concrete.
As quickly as Formstone gets peeled off rowhouses, old traditions disappear, character diminishes and cohesiveness crumbles. The sidewalks where families once leisurely sat on their front steps are blurred with health-conscious runners on a tight schedule.
Nowhere is the peninsula's change from blue collar to white more obvious than in its bars - the most recurrent feature in Fort Avenue's landscape.
Walk the avenue's two-mile length, through the neighborhoods of Federal Hill South, Riverside and Locust Point, and you will encounter two funeral homes, three dry cleaners, four banks and five pizzerias. In that same stretch you will find about 20 bars - fewer than there once were, but still nearly one every 10th of a mile. Only a handful, however, remain the same places they were just three years ago.
Just as the Victory begot the Vine, what was once a sleepy dive called Mox's Place late last year became Lime, an upscale tequila bar. What was a working-class bar called the End Zone is now the Idle Hour, a stylishly laid-back cocktail lounge with original art for sale on the walls.
Hartlove's, a blue-collar neighborhood bar, last year became Rafters, a sports bar whose new owners spruced up, added a full menu, installed new televisions and painted the bar's unusual interior walls - clad in Formstone, the faux stone finish normally seen on the exterior of buildings.
"I have no clue how it got there," said Elizabeth Hartlove, 61, who owned the bar, and lived upstairs, from 1988 until last year.
The answer lies further back in time, and each of Fort Avenue's bars - no matter how shiny and new it appears - has a history, some of it found in liquor board records, some in the recollections of owners and customers. For the bars left on the street today, more than 100 others have come and gone, their existence covered up like out-of-style wallpaper.
For many years, the transition from one bar to the next was hardly detectable. In the past four years, though, the changes have been more sweeping, and cut more deeply into the old working-class fabric of Fort Avenue.
Suddenly, or so it seems to old-timers, a new crowd, and a new class, has taken over. The beer costs twice as much as it used to, and that place where you met your spouse, unloaded your woes, forged your friendships, or sat and pondered life's questions is no longer your place. It's almost, some say, like having your living room taken over by strangers.
To barhop on Fort Avenue, from "up the hill" to "down the point," as natives say, is to see two faces of Baltimore, to bounce between two cultures - one that's growing, one that's shrinking; one that's moving in, one that's moving out; one that's focused on tomorrow, one that longs for the good old days.
Sebastian Sassi is young, urban and professional. But please - don't call him a yuppie; Sassi finds the term divisive and thinks it is tossed about recklessly.
"There are all these reasons people hate each other already - because of race, because of religion. Do we really need to come up with more?" he asked between sips of wine.
Sassi, 31, understands what's behind the resentment some express toward newcomers - how property taxes have as much as tripled, how many people who grew up here have been priced out of the neighborhood.
"It's not a traditional family community anymore," he said. "But it is what it is."
You won't find many longtime residents of South Baltimore frequenting the Vine. Then again, most didn't visit its predecessor, the Victory Tavern, either, noted Vine manager Michael Fishman.
"This was the worst dive bar in South Baltimore," he said. "We didn't exactly take a neighborhood favorite and pull it away from them."
Instead, Shane Mitchell, one of the owners of the Vine, bought the Victory to eradicate a pest.
Mitchell, developer of the Yards at Federal Hill, a complex of half-million-dollar luxury townhouses a block from the bar, spent about $25,000 putting a new face on the tavern. He swept out the crack vials and syringes, had the video poker machines hauled away, installed new flooring and painted the walls wine red before reopening it as the Vine in 2004.
For a while, the new management left up the Victory's old "If Your Not Buying ... " sign - as a nod to the bar's checkered past.
"We ended up taking it down," Fishman said. "I think it was scaring some people off."
On May 9, 1944, Roland and Anna Muir bought a bar called Buck's and renamed it Muir's.
It hasn't changed much since.
Roland Muir Jr. was 12 when his family moved in above the bar, just south of Light Street in a Formstone house with a turret and a neon "Beer Wines Liquors" sign that casts an orange glow onto Fort Avenue at night.
Roland Jr., now 74, still opens the bar every morning at 9. It closes whenever he sees fit. "If there ain't nobody here, I close her up," Muir said, "sometimes in the middle of the afternoon."
Muir's has dill pickles in a giant jar behind the bar, and huge varnished cabinets with glass doors. One side holds photos of Johnny Unitas and Baltimore memorabilia; the other, a collection of knickknacks assembled by his wife, Audrey, who died five years ago.
Muir's, like the two bars closest to it, Fort Charles Pub and the Garden Lounge, makes no effort to appeal to the newer crowd.
"Everybody wants to be a Federal Hill bar. Not me," said Jim Whittman, owner of the Fort Charles Pub. "I'm the last bastion of South Baltimore. I don't see the big attraction of standing in line for a $3 beer. I think two bucks is a good price. Sometimes, though, I honestly think if I just raise my prices, people will come in."
The Fort Charles Pub still draws a big blue-collar crowd, but Muir's - the oldest continuously owned bar on Fort Avenue - seldom fills up, getting by on a shrinking group of aging regulars. In a way, it's a neighborhood bar that has outlived the neighbors.
"It's a different crowd now - a lot of yuppies," Muir said. "They don't come in here much."
Mention of the word "yuppie" prompts comments from the three customers at the bar: The yuppies don't say hello, they act superior, they are only passing through and will move once their children turn school age, they are causing prices to go up and, maybe most insulting of all, they are taking over the bars.
"The yuppies got that one," a customer said, referring to a newly reopened Fort Avenue bar as if it had fallen into enemy hands.
Muir's could be next. "I could sell her tomorrow if I wanted. Almost every day I think, `Man, I could be down at the shore. ... ' But then I change my mind. All my customers say, `Don't sell it; I don't have anywhere else to go.'"
The Idle Hour
It's past midnight at the Idle Hour when a customer turns to the woman on the next barstool. "So," he says, in the flickering light of a red candle, "do you want to come see my renovation?"
Cozy and low-key, the Idle Hour isn't known as a pickup joint. But the odds for that are probably better than they once were. Three years ago, the only scoring regularly done in this bar - known as the End Zone from 1989 to 2003 - was on TV. And when it was known as the Blue Room (1957 to 1989), women weren't even allowed. The Blue Room began as a stag bar.
"Half the bars in South Baltimore were stag bars," said Blue Room owner Joe Ripple. "The customers were mostly married men; it wasn't like gay or anything. It was a tradition."
The Blue Room was known for its ice-cold beers - Ripple said he was the first on Fort Avenue to use frosted mugs - and its camaraderie. Crowds of regulars would gather there before Colts games, wearing cowboy hats and toasting Johnny U before boarding a bus to Memorial Stadium.
Most of all, it was known for being blue. The owner before Ripple painted the inside the same color as the famed B&O Railroad engine called Royal Blue. In fact, Ripple said, it was the same paint - the owner had once worked at the B&O and brought home a few cans to spruce the place up.
Like other South Baltimore bars of its day, the Blue Room opened at 6 a.m. It sponsored a bowling team and a "pleasure club" that threw parties for neighborhood youths, said Ripple, a Navy veteran of World War II and Korea.
Ripple sold the Blue Room in 1979, but continued living across the street from it until two years ago, when he moved to a retirement complex. Today, he visits the neighborhood, but drinks his beers - over ice, in plastic cups - at the VFW Star Spangled Banner Memorial Post, a few blocks down Fort Avenue.
As the Idle Hour, the bar gets few South Baltimore old-timers, but it does draw a mixed crowd - artsy types, young professionals from the neighborhood and workers from other bars and restaurants. It holds monthly wine tastings, and keeps its flat-panel TV hidden away, except for Ravens games, when a chalkboard outside advertises "Meathead-Free Football."
It holds art exhibits that rotate monthly, though one wall is reserved for a picture of President Bush in drag - something that wouldn't have washed in Ripple's day. Back then, the walls carried the names of every neighborhood resident who went to war.
The new owners, Randal Etheridge and Brendan Finnerty, have made at least one nod to the old bar's history. They hadn't decided on a name for the place when they went to get their liquor license. As they thumbed through the bar's records, kept on index cards at the city liquor board, they saw all its incarnations since 1937. On the oldest card, they found its original name, the Idle Hour, and took it as their own.
It has been Wenger's, Sud Suckers and the Top Deck and, for a brief while, it was painted all black and known as the Morgue. But for the past six years, it has been the Southside Saloon - a blue-collar corner tavern whose sign features a tough-looking bulldog with a bone in its mouth.
And so it shall stay - at least until Stuart Satosky sells it, something he says he doesn't plan on doing anytime soon.
There is probably more money to be made off the upwardly mobile, but Satosky, a 60-year-old real estate agent and longtime bar owner, doesn't see the need to change with the neighborhood. "I think there is room here for this type of bar - one that caters to the older crowd."
Some of Satosky's business comes from former residents who, though they have moved, still come back for a drink.
"A couple of weeks ago, on a Friday and Saturday, people came in and they said the exact same thing: `We came back to the neighborhood ... and went looking for the old bars and this was the only one we could find.'"
Most customers at the Southside, where one-cent drinks are dispensed when the Orioles hit a home run on TV, don't set foot into the newer bars.
"It used to be you could walk into any bar and there were always four or five of your friends," said customer John Hennelly, 52, a boilermaker who was born in the neighborhood and still lives there. He bought his house on Boyle Street in 1990 for $82,000. His father, a boilermaker, too, bought his house on Jackson Street for $5,600 in 1966. Hennelly's plan is to wait until his house is worth $350,000, if it's not already, and then retire to Florida.
His block has turned over almost entirely to new residents. Except for a retired cop and a stevedore, he is surrounded by "yuppies" - a term he admits is relative. "When you get right down to it, a `yuppie' is anybody who makes more money than you."
He has had trouble with some of his new neighbors; one in particular, who has since moved, yelled at Hennelly's wife about their dog being too noisy.
"They're doing away with all the old traditions," he complained. "I mean, dogs can't bark anymore?
"They turn their yards ... beautiful yards ... into parking lots. They rip off their Formstone. They want to turn us into some kind of Williamsburg. Well, I'm keeping the Formstone. There was a reason for the Formstone. That's tradition to me. I grew up in a Formstone house. I will not change my Formstone."
Born and raised in South Baltimore, Sherry "Pinky" Hogan makes her living selling real estate there, so she knows Fort Avenue's transition from blue-collar to white can be both painful and profitable.
"I've sold homes for $200,000 that were not livable," Hogan said. "I've watched 90-year-old women weep when they're selling their houses, people who have lived here all their lives and can't get up and down the steps anymore, or they can't pay the higher property taxes, or they just want to cash out."
In 2004, Hogan was showing a bar called Cox's to some potential buyers from Washington when she realized something: She didn't like them.
"They were from out of state. They wanted to turn it into a nightclub," said Hogan, a grandmother of three. "I love this neighborhood, and I've had so many good times at this bar. ... So I decided I should buy it."
She and her husband, retired Baltimore police officer Gerard Hogan (who used to park his patrol car in the alley behind Cox's when he went in for coffee), paid $750,000 for the tavern, spent another $30,000 adding flat-screen TVs and new doors, and renamed it Hogan's Alley.
While upgrading, they plan to keep it an "old neighborhood place." It's not unusual to find two generations of a family at opposite ends of the dimly lit bar.
The Hogans bought the bar from Ellen Berry, the daughter of Robert Cox, who had owned it between 1975 and 1991. He's responsible for its lack of natural light. Scolded by police for being in the bar after hours, Cox, who lived upstairs with his family, bricked in all the ground-level windows.
Berry had bought the bar in 2000, returning it to the family. In 2004, she sold it and bought a 40-acre farm in Southwestern Virginia.
Faith Laarkamp has Captain Larry's old recipe for crab cakes. She has, under the agreement of sale, the right to keep calling her tavern by his name. What she doesn't have, she admits, is the former owner's personality.
"There's a difference between a 60-year-old ex-cop and a 30-year-old girl," she said.
Larry Gross - an ex-Marine, charter boat captain, city police officer, private detective and government agent - sold the bar and retired to a houseboat in Key West, Fla., four years ago, leaving behind his name, his legend and a few bullet holes in the ceiling.
Laarkamp recalls the first time she saw the bar. Her date pointed it out to her. "Under no circumstances," he said, "should you go in there."
Laarkamp, with help from Tim Whisted, the owner of Little Havana, the Key Highway bar and restaurant where she tended bar, bought Captain Larry's, keeping the nautical theme, but making permanent repairs to spots she says Captain Larry had patched up "like it was a boat."
She left up a few reminders of the previous owner, including a portrait of the captain, who sported a bushy mustache, shaved head and gold earring.
Captain Larry's old customers, however, didn't hang around - with higher prices and no more captain, the bar lost its attraction for them. No longer was it the kind of a place where anything - the more outlandish the better - could happen.
"It wound up being a neighborhood bar, with local people but also a lot of cops and firemen, Navy and Marines, CIA and DEA guys, and a lot of unmentionables we can't talk about," said Gross, who bought the bar, previously Pete's American Cafe, in 1991
Captain Larry's was like a club, with its own rituals and customs, including New Year's Eve parties in which the 200-pound captain appeared in a diaper; head shavings for anyone entering the armed services; and ear-piercings conducted on the premises.
"We had gold earrings made up in a skull and crossbones," Gross said. "You'd take the earring and put it in a shot of vodka, and the customer would drink the vodka and spit the earring back into the glass. That was to sterilize it. Then we'd take a dart, and sterilize it with vodka and pierce the ear."
After 10 years, the captain called it quits, weary of 17-hour days and aware that the neighborhood was becoming a different place. He sold the bar, which he had bought for $125,000, for $325,000.
"The crowd was changing - stockbrokers and insurance guys, things like that. You'd have 30 people in there, and 20 of them would be drinking water. I was feeling like a dinosaur in the business, and I saw that the old way wasn't going to work anymore."
When he visits from Florida, he doesn't go to the bar that bears his name. It looks nice, he said, but seeing the change is painful. "It's like someone killing one of your family members."
There was a time, Elizabeth Hartlove recalls, when it went pretty much like clockwork - she and her husband could wait until factory shifts ended, then watch their bar fill up.
The customers came from working on the railroad or in the shipyards. They came from the grain elevator or the sugar plant. They came from Procter & Gamble, Bethlehem Steel, Allied Signal Chemical, Coca-Cola and Chesapeake Paperboard - none of which remain in the area today.
By the mid-1990s, with the decline of heavy industry in Locust Point, working-class bar crowds weren't what they used to be. Last year, "just worn out from worrying every day," Hartlove, 61, put the bar up for sale. "It's a younger person's business."
Hartlove's is now Rafters, a bar with younger ownership and a younger clientele. Hartlove's old regulars - deeming the music too loud and prices too high - migrated to the few other bars that still cater to the old crowd.
The old interior Formstone is still there, but painted over. It goes back to the days the bar was Leone's, famous for its semi-pro baseball team, which starred a local teenager named Al Kaline.
From 1950 to 1988, the bar was owned by Vince Leone, who opened it with his brother Dominick, a one-time Baltimore City councilman who was shot and killed at the courthouse in 1976. It was Vince Leone, now legally blind and living in Glen Burnie, who opted for the interior Formstone, about the same time he had it put on the exterior.
"What the heck," he said, "I just like the way it looked."
The newest tavern on Fort Avenue is Lime, a sleek, shiny and very green tequila bar whose sign - the 13th to hang at 801 E. Fort Ave. in the 70 years since Prohibition ended - went up in October.
The bar was bought last year by Brendon Smith, an Annapolis bar manager who, with his partners, spent close to $100,000 transforming it into the "hip and trendy" nightspot they envisioned.
Weeks before Lime opened, the old sign - "Mox's Place, Package Goods" - was still leaning against the building, waiting to be hauled away.
Mox's Place drew a blue-collar crowd, as previous bars in that location did for 70 years - among them Riverside Tavern, Driftwood Inn and Stumblin' Inn.
But Mox's Place, it turns out, was never really Mox's place. It was owned and operated for five years by Doris McManus, a former pole dancer and bartender with a soft heart and a vicious right hook. She saved her money, bought her own place and named it after her boyfriend, whose nickname was Mox.
Mox, whom McManus married three months later, never worked at the bar - never worked much at all, she said. After eight months, the marriage, her fifth, broke up, and McManus never bothered to change the bar's name. By then, most people were calling her Mox, anyway.
By 2004, McManus decided to get out of the business. She sold the bar for nearly twice the $100,000 she paid for it in 1999.
One Sunday, McManus confronted the new owner, who she said owed her money. He said he didn't. During the argument, she said, he pushed her twice. McManus started walking away, then turned and decked him.
Not long after, the new owner closed the bar, which remained vacant until it became Lime. McManus, who served a brief community service sentence for the punch, never got the money.
She now works for a delivery company and still lives on Fort Avenue, with two pit bulls, one of which, having grown up in Mox's Place, tries to go in the door at Lime whenever they walk by.
When brothers Troy and Norman Bage bought a bar called Bottoms Up in 2002, they didn't turn things upside down.
Instead, they made gradual changes, and managed to hang on to the old clientele while going after a new one. Truman's, in fast-gentrifying Locust Point, is one of the few places on Fort Avenue where you are likely to find hardhats and suits drinking elbow to elbow and, for the most part, getting along.
Troy and Norman - the bar's name is a combination of their names - kept the video-poker machines, still sell lottery tickets and held the line on beer prices.
At the same time, they hired a chef who turns out fare both basic and trendy, remodeled the upstairs and put in a game room, and aggressively marketed the bar on the Internet and through a local sports club and gym.
"We wanted a place that would be comfortable, but not upscale and pretentious," said Troy Bage, a 35-year-old physical therapist.
"One of the biggest challenges has been hanging on to the crowd that has been here in the past. When they leave, you lose some of that culture. When you get more young professionals moving in, what you'd call yuppies - and I guess I fall into that category - the longtime people feel they lose a little of their identity."
LP Docks is at the end of the road - probably in more ways than one.
The last bar on Fort Avenue before Fort McHenry, it is also the closest to Silo Point, a $200 million conversion of an old grain elevator that looms over Locust Point into luxury housing and retail space.
The project all but guarantees that the days are numbered for LP Docks, a tiny piece of the past on a road drastically changing.
To predict its future, just look back up the avenue.
What used to be Henry's Tavern, which then became Backfinz, soon will be Nasu Blanca, a Japanese-Spanish restaurant in a neighborhood that traditionally has been home to neither. Locust Point, second only to Ellis Island as a U.S. entry point for European immigrants - mostly Greek, Polish and Irish - has always been very white.
What used to be a lead-paint factory is now the Foundry on Fort, which houses a health club, day spa and salon, coffeehouse and the Wine Market, a bar, restaurant and wine store.
At LP Docks, barstool banter is free of pretense, the beer is cheap and the decor is minimal.
The bar has three poker machines, a linoleum floor, paneled walls and perhaps the smallest men's room in town - not much larger than a coffin. A mere 2 feet in width, it used to be the ladies' room, but female employees demanded a switch. "We used to have some larger women working the bar and they had to back in," the bartender said.
On Tuesdays, back at the other end of Fort Avenue, the Vine offers two glasses of wine for $7. LP Docks, which has no wine list - no wine, for that matter - has its own special that day: 25-cent beers for customers 55 and older.
On a recent Tuesday, Frank Haggerty, 68, had gotten there before LP Docks opened at 10 a.m. He was still there at 4 p.m. A retired merchant marine, Haggerty spends most days drinking beer and playing Keno at the few old bars that remain.
"Most of the other bars I can't afford to go in anymore," he said as he swiveled on his stool and beckoned the bartender.
He flashed a smile when she placed a foaming plastic cup in front of him. He took a sip. Then he slid a quarter and a penny across the counter.
"There it is, hon - for a beer and your tip."
(All photos by Elizabeth Malby/Sun photographer)