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Food & Drink

Historic Griffith’s Tavern, a ‘wood-paneled paradise’ in Hampden, prepares for new owners, new era

Classic rock plays while regulars sip Natty Boh. Rick Koehler, the 62-year-old owner of Griffith’s Tavern, carries a bag of ice out to a customer.

“The first warm day,” he said, “and people want ice.”

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Next month, Koehler, who’s worked in the bar purchased by his grandfather since he was a teenager, will retire, handing over the keys to a new generation.

“I’ve been here 45 years, since September the third, 1976,” he said. “It’s time to have some free time before there’s no time.”

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Regulars say Griffith’s, or “the ice house” as many still call it, is one of the last bastions of old Hampden, hanging on long after the bustling factories surrounding it have been shut down and either abandoned or converted into high-end restaurants.

“Hampden’s changing so quick that us old-timers are getting pushed out,” said Carroll Piper, a 60-year-old insulation mechanic as he sipped a post-work beer Wednesday afternoon.

Once, bars like Griffith’s existed on “every corner” in Baltimore, said Koehler, whose grandfather took over in the 1950s from its founder, Buck Griffith. During Prohibition, Griffith sold ice at the Hickory Avenue building; he continued selling ice even after turning it into a tavern in 1934.

When he took over the bar in the 1970s, Koehler says, he kept beers cold in copper-lined bins with ice. After a while, the cost of buying the ice became too expensive, and he switched to modern refrigeration. Koehler continues to sell bags of ice stored in the now-mechanized freezer.

Originally, Griffith’s was a men-only “stag bar.” Others in the area included Roach’s Cafe on West 36th Street, now a tobacco shop, and Dimitri’s Tavern on Falls Road, which is now Papi’s Tacos. For men in the community, Piper said, such dives offered a place to “cuss and yell and say things about his wife without being ridiculed.”

But the bars ran afoul of city laws. While Koehler said the bar in fact did serve women by the time he took over, a Sun reporter noted in 1977 that the only toilet had a “men” sign on the door. After being summoned before the liquor board to defend his license, Koehler agreed to add a lock to the bathroom door.

Griffith’s new owners say they’re drawn to the lost-in-time feel of the place, and won’t do much to change it.

Pubs like Griffith’s are institutions in the neighborhoods where they’re located, said Michael T. Walsh, whose 2019 book “Baltimore Prohibition: Wet and Dry in the Free State” recounts the stiff opposition the 18th amendment encountered in Charm City, particularly among Irish and German immigrants who embraced beer drinking and brewing. “Culturally, Baltimore is a drinking city,” he said.

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For years, Griffith’s opened at 6 a.m. to serve men as they left the overnight shift at London Fog, Schenuit Tire or the Hedwin Corporation, factories that hummed around the clock in the neighborhood. Even in the early morning hours, regulars stood three deep at the bar.

After they retired from their factory jobs, said Koehler, they came back to sip coffee until noon, then switched o beer for a few hours before heading home. Many died “way too soon,” he said, some developing cancer from exposure to asbestos.

Today, the bar’s usual crowd includes the children and grandchildren of its original regulars, including Piper, whose family, like many in the area, moved to Hampden from West Virginia in the 1930s for work. Piper doesn’t plan to stick around Baltimore for much longer; he wants to move to Florida to retire.

But for now, he’ll continue to come by Griffith’s — or “Melanie’s Griffith’s” — as it will soon be called.

New owners Allison Crowley, 34, and Hannah Spangler, 33, want to change the name, but not much else. (The punctuation of the tavern’s new name matters, says Spangler. They’re not trying to get sued by a certain famous actor and star of the John Waters film, “Cecil B. Demented.”)

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“You can’t beat a wood-paneled paradise like this,” said Crowley, who previously worked at Cans Filling Station at Cross Street Market, where Spangler was part-owner.

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Crowley, who is originally from rural Minnesota, said when she first walked in, the tavern reminded her of “every bar I drank in in my hometown.”

While maintaining its lost-in-time-feel and Wednesday “shufflebowl” nights, Crowley and Spangler, who are both queer, hope to make the bar feel equally welcoming to young restaurant workers and LGBTQ individuals as to its current conservative customer base.

Spangler described their vision as: “a dive bar but make it kind of gay.”

Like Griffith’s, Melanie’s won’t sell food, but Spangler said she and Crowley will encourage guests to pick up a meal at nearby restaurants like The Food Market. They’re also exploring what to do with an attached house that’s currently vacant.

But they’ll definitely still sell ice.

“We’re not here to mess with perfection,” Crowley said.


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