In the last few hectic weeks before Christmas, word got around by way of a published legal notice in local newspapers that restaurateur Ted Bauer, owner of the popular Oregon Grille in Hunt Valley — home of the $11 heirloom tomato salad, $43 12-ounce filet mignon and $28 organic chicken breast — was requesting a liquor license transfer from the Baltimore County Liquor License Commissioners.
It quickly became apparent to readers of the legal notices and loyal patrons of the Valley Inn that the 88-year tenure of the Hatfield family, who began serving meals there in 1922, was about to come to an end.
The day after my article was published about the impending change in ownership coming to the venerable Brooklandville inn that had fed and slaked the thirst of patrons since 1832, the request of license transfer was quickly granted by the commissioners on Dec. 20 without opposition.
John "Bud" Hatfield Jr. is as much a Falls Road landmark as the inn he has owned and managed for years, wandering from table to table talking to guests, and greeting and escorting arrivals to their tables.
Baltimoreans really don't adapt easily to their restaurants and watering holes being changed, threatened or disappearing altogether.
The latest casualty on the heels of the change of the status in the Valley Inn, the venerable Burke's at Light and Lombard streets, gave up the ghost about a week ago and quietly passed on to Restaurant Heaven, where the onion rings will always be crisp, the beer cold and the sour beef flavored with ginger snaps.
Such places are steady, unchanging anchors, where one could count on enjoying the Maryland bounty of field and bay, at the same time restoring one's spavined soul from the vicissitudes of the day surrounded by boon companions sipping adult beverages.
My phone lit up and e-mails poured in from readers worried about the Valley Inn's fate or wanting to recount a favorite remembered moment or meal there.
They praised its old-fashioned Maryland menu, which featured such straightforward foods as liver and onions, lima bean soup, stewed tomatoes, creamed chicken with pimento, imperial crab, Valley Inn steaks, lamb chops and fried crab cakes.
They rejoiced that it was free of the trendy, such as sushi, infused sauces, radicchio or anything heirloom or organic. The only garnish was parsley.
Drinks were also classics. No need to worry about cosmopolitans or mojitos here. This was a place for grownups who liked their whiskey neat and their martinis and Manhattans chilled and stirred to perfection.
Here is a random sampling:
"Your piece brought back a lot of old memories," wrote Walter B. "Bucky" Buck Jr. in an e-mail. A retired educator who lives in New Mexico, Buck was raised nearby on Hillside Road and consumed many meals in the old inn with his parents, brother and sister.
His parents, the late Dr. Walter B. and Caroline P. Buck, practically lived in the Valley Inn. Dr. Buck's trifecta Valley Inn meal was lamb chops and crab cakes washed down with a glass or two of Maryland rye whiskey.
Margaret Worrall, a writer who was a former executive director of the Valley Planning Council, asked: "I was interested in the senior Mr. Hatfield's title as 'colonel.' In the days that I knew him (I practically grew up there with my parents), he was called 'captain' by everyone. I wonder why?
"And Mrs. Hatfield, I never heard anyone call her by her first name, was quite elegant as were Buddy's sisters," she wrote. "In lots of ways, I'm sorry to see the old place change hands — if it does — but it's time. … I just hope that [Ted Bauer] can keep not only the ambience but the welcoming, cozy feeling of past decades."
Ken Jackson, the veteran Baltimore broadcaster who hosts a weekly big-band show on WYPR-FM on Friday evenings, has for the past decade seen in the new year at the Valley Inn. For years, he also did on-air commercials for place, incorporating the phrase, "Come join me at the historic 1830 Valley Inn for dinner and some big band-era music."
"Bud always gave me carte blanche as far as his copy was concerned," Jackson wrote in an e-mail. "For more than 20 years I chatted up the Valley Inn live and off the top. I guess it worked. I always ran into listeners when I dropped by. Many of them would quote me. 'You're right, It's a time warp thing.' "
Richard Basoco, former Baltimore Sun general manager who is now executive editor of Baltimore Magazine, wrote in an e-mail about going with a Sun reporter, Fred Hill, to the Valley Inn bar on occasional Sunday afternoons in the 1960s to watch Colts games.
"We were the only ones under 50. The median age was probably around 60. We were the only ones not wearing a tweed sport coat," Basoco wrote in an e-mail, of the assemblage, all wearing ties, standing around sipping Pikesville Rye old-fashioneds while cheering on the Colts.
"It had the best color television reception in the area, its bloody marys were maybe just so-so, not a lot better than the watery mixture served at Burke's, and the half-time hamburger was probably the best in town," he wrote.
Patty Leaverton wrote to say that mention of the inn's signature Apple Brown Betty dessert made her "want to have it for breakfast."
An old friend, Kitty Hoffman, who lives nearby at the Brightwood retirement community, phoned to say that her parents wouldn't let her go near the Valley Inn in the 1930s "because it was owned by Russians."
I called Hatfield and asked about this, and he said, "Not true."
"My father hired a White Russian family of performers who performed there on Saturday nights for several years in the early 1930s," he explained.
Their act included some knife throwing, and one night a knife went awry and landed firmly in the young Hatfield's leg.
The saga of the Valley Inn picked up speed as the new year approached and the rumor — untrue — started circulating around North Baltimore that New Year's Eve was to be the inn's last night and that it would close until reopening sometime next summer.
"The place looked great and all the rooms were full. There were candles on the table and the food and service were wonderful," said Jack Winter, a retired stockbroker who was there with a dozen other New Year's Eve revelers.
"I asked Bud about the closing, and he said, 'This isn't the last night. We'll still be here,' and then he walked off. I just hope Bauer will keep its ambience," Winter said.
In a brief telephone interview Thursday, Bauer said "the liquor transfer went through but the deal is not complete yet. It's not finalized, and I'm hoping it will be in about a month."
He declined to discuss his plans further.