It’s not just an average bar. From the history to the clientele, nothing about this former speakeasy can be called ordinary.
Deep in the heart of mid-town Baltimore, resting comfortably inside the grandiose Belvedere Hotel, lies the Owl Bar, a popular attraction for anyone and everyone looking to have a good time. But the Bar isn’t just famous for its liquor (though the unique flavors of beer–Peanut Butter beer, for example–certainly keeps the revenue flowing). The atmosphere of good food, friendly people, and quality service makes the Bar more than just the usual hangout. Over time, the Bar has evolved into not just a landmark, but a major part of Baltimore culture and the ever-growing LGBT community.
“It’s not the typical setting that you would see,” says Dena Glisan, 32, a waitress who has worked at the Owl Bar since January.
Former Owl Bar general manager and current building manager of the Belvedere Hotel Bill Schneider says that uniqueness comes from its history.
The Owl Bar was introduced to Baltimore as part of the new Belvedere Hotel in 1903, and instantly became a hit with the local male crowd. Right up until prohibition, in fact, the Bar consistently drew customers. And then, with the new laws banning liquor sales, the Owl Bar, just like all others in the U.S., faced closure. But instead, the owners improvised. The signature owl statue that had become a classic feature of the bar became more than just an ornament–it turned into a spy.
“I don’t necessarily remember which way the eyes had to go for the owls, whether they were blinking or not blinking, but back in Prohibition, depending on the way the eyes on the owls were going, you could either get alcohol or not get alcohol, but you didn’t speak about alcohol,” Schneider says.
The code Schneider is trying to remember is as follows: whenever liquor had been successfully received by the bar and officials were nowhere to be found, the owl blinked. If the shipment had not been recovered or the police were somewhere on hand, the owl remained motionless. It was a system that managed to carry the Bar through Prohibition and straight to present day Baltimore, where it continues to serve regulars and new arrivals every day.
With over 21 years of experience working at the Owl Bar, Schneider has plenty of history of his own to talk about, and there are plenty of stories to go along.
“In 1976, we actually had a gentleman named Colonel White who had a booth in the corner,” he says. “He had his own private red phone that–I don’t know if I believe this or not–but it was a hot line to the president, to all the politicians, and everyday for lunch he would be here. Every major politician involved in Baltimore would be sitting at his table.”
And the A-list guests haven’t been limited to politicians. The bar proudly displays its high end clientele on the wall outside the restaurant, each photograph representing a different era in the building’s storied history. From Clark Gable to Richard Dreyfus, the list seems endless.
“You got Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, Kirstie Allie,” Schneider says. “Typically if it’s advertised they’re gonna be here they don’t show up, but we try to keep it under wraps if they’re going to be here after a show or after a shoot.”
What draws such high profile customers? With much of the architecture the same as it was over 100 years ago, the Bar’s rustic, homely atmosphere makes it a go-to hangout both for celebrities and native Baltimoreans alike.
“We have people who come in and literally just look around just to see everything,” she says. “It’s neat to have people from different areas come in, and it’s easy to talk to them about some of the history and why there are different elements here and what they mean. I think it makes it an easy sell for people because it has a lot of history to it.”
For Glisan, working at such an historic locale “definitely adds something” to her job.
“There’s a lot of different elements here,” she says. “You can definitely tell some of the older elements in here. We have these booths that were the original booths in here, the stained glass, the blinking owls are definitely originals.”
And she would know. As a 3D animation student at Westwood College in Arlington, Virginia, she has become a talented critic of architecture and design. In fact, it was the beauty of the building and its interior design, as well as the wide range of customers who frequent the Bar, that drew her interest in the first place.
“I had been here a couple times before just as a customer and I liked it,” she says. “This is one of the first bars I went to when I first came here,” she says. “It just has a cool, diverse atmosphere.”
No matter how many years he has been surrounded by the Bar’s historic structure, Schneider is still in awe of its many antiquated details.
“It’s unique,” he says. “There’s no building like it in Baltimore.”
And it’s not just the building itself that ushers in the crowds. The atmosphere of welcoming makes the Bar a prime location for customers of all backgrounds.
“Nowadays, it’s a very divergent crowd, you’ve got some of the older regulars, and now it’s cultivating a much younger customer base,” Schneider says.
Tom Fox and Michael Quattrochi are part of that new, diverse crowd. The two met at the Owl Bar four years ago. As a gay couple, they have experienced the difficulty of finding an LGBT-friendly bar in Baltimore.
“Hate crimes are so prevalent in Baltimore,” Fox says.
Here, however, they feel not only accepted, but welcomed. The Owl Bar sits within a cluster of LGBT-friendly bars and restaurants, making it a uniquely accessible haunt.
“It’s a place we feel comfortable and we enjoy coming together and having a good time,” Quattrochi says. “We always have a good time when we come, and y’know being gay, there are places in the city where you don’t always feel comfortable, but the Owl Bar is somewhere we know we can come, and we know we’re accepted, and we’re guaranteed to have a good time.”
From celebrities to sentimental couples, the Bar continues to draw crowds, and stands as one of the hidden treasures of Baltimore.
“I think a lot of people don’t really know that it’s here unless you know of it,” Glisan says. “It’s hidden away.”
But as hidden as it is, the Bar’s unique structure and historic past speak to its endurance and continued popularity. And with over a hundred years of service under its belt, the Owl Bar shows no signs of slowing down.