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Shifting times for Laurel's neighborhood bars

Outside the old Starting Gate Bar & Lounge on Laurel Fort Meade Road, a hand-scrawled “Closing Sale” sign, spray-painted across the weathered roof teases passing motorists with the promise of mementos and relics. On a front entrance to the brick building, a smaller sign proclaims the place “Open,” but that part of the building has been locked up for months.

A little more than three miles northwest, on the other side of the Laurel Park racetrack in Howard County, Bottom of the Bay Seafood, another long-standing mom-and-pop establishment, stands in disrepair after closing its doors last fall.

Starting Gate Liquors, which operated under separate ownership in the west corner of the brick building for 27 years, closed July 29.

The closures mark the further remaking of Laurel’s landscape and identity, where neighborhood hangouts that seem like they’ve been on the scene forever continue to quietly disappear.

Dave Ferguson, 55, of Burtsonville, said he has frequented most of Laurel’s bars in the past 20 years and is sorry to see Bottom of the Bay and The Starting Gate Bar join others that have dimmed and then disappeared.

“The fabric of what made Laurel what it is is fading with the bar scene,” Ferguson said. “It’s a shame to lose these cultural icons that have become relics of the past.”

Richard Friend, 45, author of the photography book “Lost Laurel | Revisiting the Vanishing Retailers of Laurel, Maryland,” posted a photo of the Starting Gate closing sign on Instagram. A follower commented, “Man! That place is historic, I remember 25 cent draft Sundays.”

According to Friend, who is one of the Laurel History Boys on Facebook, Starting Gate, one of the more colorful neighborhood joints in a city that used to be filled with them, opened in 1961 as a family restaurant.

With its jukebox and pool table, it wore its dive bar nature like a badge of honor.

“This place is like a grave yard for local alcoholics and the occasional old jockey,” wrote one reviewer on Yelp.com six years ago. “They have a pool table and a few shady regulars haunting that dark dingy death dump, don’t do it.”

Anne Arundel County public records reveal no health department, zoning or criminal violations at the Starting Gate address. The most recent owner, Han Nam Su, of Laurel, could not be reached for comment.

Helen Jung, whose father owned Starting Gate Liquors, said both businesses rented space from S. G. Properties in Florida. Starting Gate Liquors — currently negotiating a new lease for a different property nearby — was leaving because “the landlord wants to make way for Royal Farms.”

“Our clientele has matured with us,” Jung said. “The neighborhood is getting safer. We are absolutely sorry to leave and appreciate our customers’ patronage.”

On the east side of the parking lot riddled with pot holes, a free-standing Royal Farms sign stakes yet another chain store’s claim on Laurel’s future. Three miles away, Double T Diner has opened its ninth location in the state in the space once occupied by the Silver Diner.

Some past Starting Gate patrons, like former Laurel resident Richard Pierce, 83, who now lives in Eldersburg, believe a Royal Farms (and especially its fried chicken) will be “a very good addition to Laurel.”

Pierce, who said he’s been to just about every bar and restaurant in Laurel since he came of drinking age, is not surprised by the closings.

“Laurel was a self-contained community in 1955,” he said. “It became a bedroom community for Washington, D.C.

“Columbia came in and Laurel, which was an entertainment center, fell by the wayside. Many of the best drinking places have already left.”

Bottom of the Bay began serving in 1972, according to Yelp. It was a long-time, dimly-lit neighborhood hangout where locals and racetrackers enjoyed piles of crabs, steamed shrimp, fried fish, cold beer and a jukebox. Decor was bare-bones, with simple wooden tables and wood paneling with a taxidermied sailfish nailed to the wall. It also had a carryout for seafood and beer.

After the restaurant’s original owner, Alan Soper [son of Laurel’s mayor Hiram Soper (1958–1962)], sold the restaurant, it reopened briefly in 2016 under new ownership.

Online reviews at TripAdvisor lament poor service, spoiled crabs and mediocre seafood in contrast with earlier raves about Bottom of the Bay as a bona fide “dive with great seafood.”

A notice posted by the Howard County Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits, dated Oct. 28, 2017, warns that the building is unsafe, and its use or occupancy prohibited.

According to real estate marketplace loopnet.com, the property is currently off the market.

Relics of the Past

Although many of Laurel’s vanished bars started out as more than dives, some have always sown the seedy side of Laurel’s night life.

Gambling joints operated in in Anne Arundel County from the 1940s to early 1960s. One, Club 602, now is The Bank Shot, a pool hall. Pierce said the gambling places would stay open all night long.

The country and western-themed Turf Club on Route 1 (now a Public Storage facility) was a big deal in the 1950s.

It also sold alcohol out of a drive-thru window in the back.

Brendan Nuzback, 66, who owns and operates Nuzback’s Bar on Baltimore Avenue, recalled when hitmakers Jimmy Dean, Roy Clark, Ernest Tubb and Ronnie Dove performed at the Turf Club. It had topless dancing girls and more than its share of drunken shenanigans.

Likely the oldest bar in Laurel, Nuzback’s is revving up to celebrate its 70th anniversary in October. The vintage bar started out as The Palms, a roadhouse bar owned by Peter T. Nuzback, in 1948 and has always been run by Nuzback family members.

Brendon Nuzback, who’s been there since 2000, said that in the 90s, “a lot of people thought we were a motorcycle bar, but we’ve always been a neighborhood bar.”

Many locals hold fond memories of drinking and dancing at bars in Laurel during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Facebook Laurel History Boy Pete Lewnes, 62, wrote in an email that times are different now, that it “felt like drinking and driving was okay way back then.”

The same year the Turf Club was demolished in 1989, Randy’s California Inn on Washington Boulevard — a popular night spot that began hosting live rock bands in the 1960s (and, Pierce said, had the biggest and best dance floor) — went country.

Kathie Peterson, 72, of Old Town Laurel, said she loved seeing the “awesome” Randy Lee Ashcroft and the Saltwater Cowboys perform there. Known as Cricket’s California Inn in the early 2000s, the club closed in 2008.

Two years before, PW’s Sports Bar in North Laurel (now the Hideout) lost its liquor license and closed in 2015.

DCist — a website documenting neighborhood news and entertainment — ranked it as one of the Washington, D.C. area’s best gay bars.

Opened by John Cook in 2007, PW’s was the only bar in Laurel known to cater to the LGBTQ community before or since. Grant Myers, 57, of North Laurel, said he remembers when drag queen headliners Regina Jozet Adams, Ashlee Jozet Adams and Shandra Leer appeared there and the drinks were strong.

“I knew a lot of people who would go there because the drinks were poured so generously,” Myers said. “Laurel has become so homogeneous, I usually go elsewhere for my entertainment now; there’s no flavor in Laurel.”

At 3 a.m. in the summer of 2016, a small fire ended the run of Sam & Elsie’s, a homey bar on Washington Boulevard that hosted bluegrass bands and served breakfast on Sunday mornings. Peterson remembers enjoying “delicious homecooked meals” there.

“Sam & Elsie’s had the best Maryland crab soup ever,” Peterson said. “It was as good as my grandmother’s.

Today, the Sam & Elsie’s building houses Revolution Releaf, Laurel’s only medical marijuana dispensary.

The Current Bar Scene

Bargoers wanting a more unique experience than Laurel’s chain establishments can check out Main Street’s Oliver’s Old Town Tavern, which has been known as “Oliver’s” for almost 40 years.

The classic bar was Laurel’s electric trolley station at the turn of the 20th century before it became Town Tavern. In the early 1980s, Town Tavern became Oliver’s Saloon under the ownership of David and Catherine Cogott.

Catherine Cogott renamed it the Main Street Sports Grill in 2008.

A year after current co-owners Lenny Wohlfarth and Randy Carmichael purchased Cogott’s assets in 2014 and renovated the interior, they renamed it Oliver’s Old Town Tavern.

“I know this location is very important to Main Street and I want it to thrive,” Wohlfarth said.

He said business has been good. The new owners aim to follow a “Cheers” theme by being the kind of place where staff knows their customers’ names, and where groups like the Laurel Little League, which has meetings there, feel comfortable.

The first two weeks in August, Oliver’s Old Town Tavern will be working with Laurel Advocacy & Referral Services to conduct a food drive on Facebook.

Nuzback’s also has sponsored numerous adult softball teams over the years and is currently sponsoring a traveling team that plays tournaments nationwide.

According to day manager Courtney Christensen, Nuzback’s is very diverse but has a family feel.

“Everyone looks out for one another here,” she said.

Times have certainly changed for Laurel’s neighborhood bars.

Richard Friend frequents Nuzback’s and has noticed a professional art teacher holding painting classes for women there. Seeing old timers at the bar turn around to watch a painting class in progress in the middle of Nuzback’s, he said, is amazing.

“That blows me away,” Friend said. “As I once jokingly told a waitress, people used to come here to drink, fight and occasionally stab each other. Now they come to have dinner and learn to paint landscapes.”

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