In 2011, during the early hours of Halloween morning, a two-alarm fire began at Mt. Washington Tavern.
It required more than 60 firefighters to extinguish and all but ruined the building. Passionate fans of the bar, which opened in 1979, paid their respects to the neighborhood staple throughout the week. Judging from the tears and reminiscing, the loss of the tavern — even temporarily — weighed on the entire community.
"We'll be back," co-owner Rob Frisch reassured visitors. Frisch kept his word, and on Nov. 6, a little more than a year after the fire, the Mt. Washington Tavern reopened to a line outside its door.
While the tavern retains some of its old charm (its stone walls, the American flag that survived the fire proudly displaying its damages) it looks like a shiny new business, ready to impress old and new patrons alike.
Each room in the sprawling, nearly 10,000-square-foot building looks lifted from a Pottery Barn catalog, without a single piece of its country-chic design askew. The $4 million it cost to repair, rebuild and redesign the bar will have that kind of quaint but sterilizing effect.
Co-owners Frisch and Dave Lichty deserve credit for not only wisely spending the insurance money on a handsome design, but also for not cutting corners in a short-sighted attempt to reopen before the bar was ready.
On a recent Friday night, the new bar and restaurant looked the way the owners likely imagined, or at least hoped: full of bodies, conversations and warmth. The first-floor's main room was filled with patrons watching sports and diners waiting for their tables. There was a private party upstairs, and a quieter, but still lively, secondary bar in the back dining room. Given the space, it felt more like a restaurant than a bar, but neither area lacked excitement.
What the bar did lack were bartenders I'd want to hand money to again. As it should be at 9 p.m. on a Friday, the bar was busy, with about 40 people surrounding it. It seemed to fluster the two men behind the bar — so much so, that basic requests were met with looks of resentment from one server. After placing an order of cocktails and beers, a member of our party asked to see a food menu. Our bartender huffed, clearly unhappy that he was making cocktails instead of twisting off beer caps.
"One moment," he said, before reminding us of our order. "I've got a pain-in-the-ass drink to make."
There was no sarcasm or playful chiding to detect, as our bartender actually seemed annoyed he had to make us a drink offered on the bar's menu. He should have been happy to make it, not only because it's his job, but also because it meant a larger bill and, in turn, more money in his own pocket. And to think, I was under the impression that was the whole point of the operation.
The first exchange wasn't a fluke. A couple of rounds later, another friend asked to see the cocktail menu again, and the same bartender couldn't resist asking "Really?" before quickly rolling his eyes.
It's another good example of poor service marring an otherwise enjoyable experience. The Charm City Blossom ($9) — a mixture of mint-infused Beefeater gin, simple syrup and Aperol liqueur — was crisp and refreshing, thanks to a smooth finish.
Our crushes, both orange and grapefruit, were balanced better than most of the versions found across the city. And the beer (including 10 drafts and more than 50 bottles and cans) and wine selections were a welcome variety. For example, it's nice to see Union Craft Brewing become more of a standard Maryland beer on tap.
But a smart beer selection and well-poured drinks matter little when the bartender makes the customer feel like a jerk. It was my friend's first time at the tavern, and it would likely be her last, she said, because of the bartender's rudeness.
Walking in, the building's sharp redesign and its customers' lively energy had made for a promising start. When we left, that sense of optimism was dashed by a bartender's sour attitude. Sometimes, that's all it takes to make a bad impression last.
Mt. Washington Tavern
Back story: After a devastating fire in late October 2011, the Mt. Washington Tavern — a popular spot for fans of horse racing, lacrosse and its legions of dedicated regulars — closed for rebuilding. It reopened a little more than a year later, with an updated country-chic look and new additions, such as an elevator.
Where: 5700 Newbury St., Mount Washington
Signature drink: The Charm City Blossom ($9) keeps things refreshingly simple with its mixture of gin, simple syrup and Aperol liqueur. It's served on the rocks or straight up.
Parking: The tavern has a lot next door. If it's full, there are meters on the street that only accept nickels and dimes.
Contact: 410-367-6903, mtwashingtontavern.com
Open: 11 a.m-2 a.m. Monday-Saturday; 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday.