On the morning a fire devasted the Mt. Washington Tavern, its two owners, Rob Frisch and Dave Lichty, rushed to the scene convinced the incident would be minor.
"While we were driving down, my wife said, 'I still have to get a Halloween costume because I'm bartending tonight,'" Lichty said. "We didn't know what were walking into."
The two owners had been working at the restaurant since their early 20s, each doing his best to keep together a bar and restaurant that was famous for its consistency and that had become a mainstay in the city, and especially during the annual Preakness Stakes.
It wasn't until they got to the scene that they realized just how epic the loss would be. Estimates put the damage at $2.5 million.
"You were so helpless just watching it go up in smoke," Frisch said.
They say that the people you meet at your favorite bar become family. But for regulars at Mt. Washington Tavern, the old cliche resonates. The bar and restaurant wasn't just a place for an after-work beer, or where they went after a lacrosse game, or even the Preakness. It was also a place where they fell in love, marked anniversaries, reminisced about their youth.
Without it, the regulars lost a gathering place, the proverbial place where everyone knows your name. Plans for next year's Preakness were once unthinkable without the tavern. "It was like seeing a member of the family burning down," said a longtime customer, Georganne Hale, Pimlico Race Course's racing director.
For its owners, it was also where they grew up, forged a decades-long friendship, and have worked their whole life. Every corner of the sprawling restaurant, from the rooftop to the raw bar, held a memory, an anecdote.
With little left from a restaurant that had been in the neighborhood for nearly 80 years in one form or another, they're now working toward restoring their home away from home, aiming to get it ready, with any luck, by next Preakness.
Frisch and Lichty have spent most of their adult life at the tavern, working all kinds of positions, from bartending to managing. Lichty's marriage to the bar has been longer than the one to his wife, Cathy, whom he met there almost 17 years ago.
"I've worked every position except sautee," Lichty said.
While it started as a blue-collar watering hole, Sparwasser's, by 1986, when the two of them joined the staff, the tavern had become a preppy mecca, immortilized in 1980 in "The Official Preppy Handbook."
Among the clients, there were "lacrosse players, yuppies, a lot of Roland Park folks, and Guilford and private school kids," Frisch recalled.
There were also construction workers and people from the neighborhood. "It wasn't snooty," Lichty said.
The two of them were typical tavern customers. They both grew up in Northern Baltimore County and came from "solid backgrounds," in Frisch's words; "yuppie" in Lichty's.
"I was pretty preppy growing up," Lichty said, laughing. "I wore green and yellow pants!"
Frisch, at 26, started out as a bartender, and Lichty, then 20, was his barback. Over time, it became hard to leave, not that they wanted to. Though they didn't know each other at first, they developed a bond that lasts today.
"You just got sucked into friendships," Frisch said.
"I wouldn't have stayed for that long if it wasn't for people like Rob," Lichty said. "This was a place where you could look forward going to work."
Frisch was a groomsman at Lichty's wedding. And when four years ago, Frisch was offered the tavern by the original owner, Ted Bauer, he knew he wanted Lichty as a partner.
"I knew what I was getting with him, and he knew what he was getting with me," Lichty said. As for the rest of the staff, they think of it as a surrogate family, with one person who's worked there for 31 years and a couple of others who've worked for 20.
That camaraderie, among staff, and among the customers, is one of the restaurant's hallmarks, as much a distinction as its gold-leaf signage and the Beer Hall of Fame drinking board.
"Everyone knew one another," said Hale, who's been a regular since 1984. The bartenders knew the customers so well, "It got so that you'd have your drink ready before you walked in."
Charlie Korns, a Virginia small-business consultant, comes every year for Preakness for that very reason. "It always gave me a down-home feeling there, like you were part of it more than a customer," he said.
Said Frisch, "We have super loyal and regular clientele. We celebrate weddings, births of their children. It's a very warm relationship."
That attachment to the tavern was evident the day of the fire. When customers started showing up around 5 p.m. for happy hour, they instead set up an impromptu bar in front of DK Salon & Spa, where owners and staff were spending the day.
Where racing fans gather
Korns is part of the tavern's other reliable constituency: horse-racing fans. When Bauer bought the restaurant in 1979, Mount Washington was a burgeoning neighborhood. But besides drugstores, hair salons, and dress shops, there were no other restaurants. For those who worked at Pimlico Race Track, it was the most convenient place to go wind down before and after the annual Preakness race.
Jockeys and trainers came — Mike Smith, who just won the Breeders' Cup, has visited several times; Kent Desormeaux, showed up once after hours craving a tavern steak; there was also trainer D. Wayne Lucas, and on another occasion, famed trainer Bob Baffert guest-bartended. Every year the trumpet player at Pimlico would come and perform the "Call to the Post" fanfare for the customers.
"It became just what you did when you came into town for Preakness," Hale said. "It was such a ritual."
The fire that destroyed the tavern has left the regulars stranded — though the owners have said they want to reopen by next Preakness, they're not making promises — wondering for the first time in years if they'll have to alter a routine as traditional as the race itself.
"I get very attached to places. This was like a part of me, like an arm and a leg," Korns said. "I've been planning Preakness now, and I don't know what to do. I don't know if I'll have to skip the breakfast and drinks. I wouldn't know where else to go."
Hale said people in the horse-racing business had flocked there because they appreciated how the tavern stayed the same year after year.
Even when Frisch and Lichty took over, the regulars didn't notice because the two of them had been managing for so long, she said.
She can't think of where to go on Preakness. "It just has to be done by then. It just has to," she said.
The two owners themselves haven't changed much. They still wear the preppy regalia — Frisch is clad in his quilted jackets; Lichty is fond of his khakis.
They say the only change they've noticed is in how the business is marketed.
Hopes and plans
Frisch and Lichty say they want to open the bar in time for Preakness, but the scale of the reconstruction is overwhelming. The roof caved in. The kitchen is filled with debris. And while the main bar and raw bar are still standing, it's not yet clear how much water damage there is. In the garden, only "the retractable roof and some booze" is left, Frisch said.
For the next 10 to 20 days, their insurance company will be surveying the scene, and after that, the rebuilding will start. Already, they've met with engineers and architects to plan. They are looking to re-create the tavern's old look, while updating some design weaknesses in the building.
"We want to make it more efficient and flow better," Frisch said. "It'll be very traditional, and, like the tavern used to be, elegant."
Insurance has provided some comfort to the owners through the ordeal — because the tavern had business interruption insurance, employees will be getting paid as well. But their concern is with the customers and where they'll go for that tavern family, during happy hour or on Preakness day.
Recently, staff members, from the kitchen to the bartenders, invited the owners out to Souris Saloon in Towson to toast the tavern.
"It was very emotional and therapeutic to see everybody," Frisch said. But, when asked where he'd plan to go to for his own beer now that for the first time in decades he won't have his bar, he hesitates.
"I don't know," he said. "That's a good question. "
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