Twenty-two patrons waited outside the door to the rebuilt Mount Washington Tavern Tuesday, ready to pull up to the bar as soon as the doors were flung open at 4 p.m. for the first time in more than a year.
Many of them lived or worked nearby and had wept when they saw the charred stone standing among smoldering remains after a fire destroyed the restaurant last Halloween. They'd spent the intervening year watching Dave Lichty and Rob Frisch, the longtime employees who bought the establishment in 2008 with promises to preserve it as it was, assist contractors in the rebuilding.
"We've just been peeking in the window, waiting," said Laurie Atkinson, who lives nearby. "We actually were a little bit worried. It looked so different. Could it keep the same charm?"
As her three children played shuffleboard and the crowd around the main bar grew, Atkinson became emotional.
"I think they did it," she said. "It's new. It's better. But it's the same place."
Lichty darted in and out of the kitchen areas, working with the cooks and wait staff. Not that there was much teaching needed: Four managers and the entire kitchen staff had returned, as had all the bartenders and most of the waiters and waitresses. After working at other area restaurants for about 11 months, several of them came back in October to prepare for the reopening.
"It took a lot of work, a lot of dedication from Dave and Rob," said Nate Flax, a Pikesville native who worked at the tavern eight years before it burned. "It's been a month of buildup, of getting accustomed to the new space. We're happy to be back."
Lichty kept what he could from the old structure. The stone walls are still there, as is a charred American flag. Any usable pieces of wood left from the fire have been used in custom-made tables — the owners made many of them — and wall structures. It cost about $4 million to rebuild the nearly 10,000-square-foot, 2-story building, which is more spacious, is handicapped-accessible, features an elevator and sits a little higher off the ground, to meet flood-plain code.
The first floor, which once had a series of steps, is now all one level. One dining room, the Chesapeake Room, has a relocated raw bar and a Chesapeake Bay motif with decoys, oyster cans, buoys and other bay-themed decorations.
The McGinnis family, from Parkton, were the first seated in the new room since it opened to the public (a friends and family night on Monday drew a packed crowd).
"It's simply beautiful," Pam McGinnis said. "It looks extremely different, but you can feel this great energy as soon as you walk in."
The heated sky bar can be used year-round and features a seasonal deck off the bar.
The Pimlico Room features silks and blankets donated by jockeys at Pimlico Race Course. California-based trainer Bob Baffert, a frequent visitor during Preakness week, donated signed pictures.
"After the race, if he wins, he's got to go downtown and do his fancy thing," Lichty said of Baffert, a five-time winner of the Triple Crown's middle race. "Otherwise, he's here."
A large mural of Pimlico Race Course was destroyed in the fire, but students at the Schuler School of Fine Arts recreated it. Another painting, which depicts a horse race, was done by Jim Macko, a construction contractor who paints as a hobby.
The fire was ruled accidental and unintentional, but the cause is still a mystery, Frisch said.
Lichty has no doubt his regulars will return and thinks the new tavern will attract new visitors to the village of shops and restaurants.
Atkinson already felt at home. The 51-year-old Johns Hopkins employee had first gone to the restaurant at age 16. She visited the restaurant "almost every day" for the past 30 years. Her daughters Kirstyn, 23, and Marlo, 19, had come from Annapolis and Delaware, respectively, for the reopening.
"It's bigger than election day to us," she said. "We've missed it."