It outlasted Prohibition, the Great Depression and disco. But it couldn't quite survive the competition from Bohager's, Donna's and the Vanguard Cafe.
So earlier this week, owners held last call for the Owl Bar, the venerable midtown watering hole that drew generations of Baltimoreans to the former Belvedere hotel.
On Monday, they reopened it as Taos Cafe, a restaurant featuring tortillas, quesadillas, fajitas and other "New American Southwest" fare.
As part of the transformation, the owners draped handwoven Southwestern rugs above the handsome wooden bar, where leaded-glass owls have long ruled the roost. They hung the painted skull of a steer on the opposite wall, the way a deer hunter mounts his trophy above the fireplace. They put up ceramic bowls and prints of wily coyotes. And, suddenly, a longtime Baltimore tradition seems about as dead as the steer.
"I feel worse than anybody else," said Dion Dorizas, the restaurateur who bought the Owl Bar in 1991 along with the John Eager Howard Room next door. "We gave it our best shot as the Owl Bar. We promoted it any way we could. But it wasn't drawing. If I didn't made a change, how long was I going to stay in business?"
Mr. Dorizas and his wife, Maryann, bought the restaurants from a group headed by Elliott Sharaby, who acquired the hotel the year before and began converting it to condominiums. The Owl Bar had been one of the most unchanged rooms in the 1903 landmark, Baltimore's finest hotel in its heyday. Night owls of all ages knew it for its high ceiling, German brick walls, carved wooden benches and "yards" of beer -- yard-long glasses that patrons would dare one another to order.
According to a 1986 book on the Belvedere by Kristin Helberg, the room wasn't known as the Owl Bar when the hotel opened. She relates that it most likely got the name from a former owner, who put a pair of lifelike owls over the bar. During Prohibition, she wrote, the owner kept barrels of whiskey in the Belvedere's basement. The owls had blinking amber lights for eyes. When whiskey was available, the owls would wink.
A subsequent owner commissioned leaded glass panels with an owl motif.
Victor Frenkil, the Baltimore contractor who bought the Belvedere at auction in 1976, registered "The Owl Bar" as a trademark with the U.S. Patents and Trademarks office. "I think it's a crime," he said of the change. "The Owl Bar was the most famous bar in the entire state. It was known all over the country. It's a sad commentary."
Mr. Dorizas contends that the old-timers who knew the Owl Bar just don't drop in the way they used to -- and that its heritage isn't enough to draw the young patrons he wants. "The history of the Owl Bar will never be diminished," he said. "It will always remain in the hearts of anyone who has visited it. However, lifestyles, trends and preferences are changing."
Mr. Dorizas said he plans to donate the glass panels above the bar and other Owl artifacts to the Walters Art Gallery, so that they can be put on display. Walters spokesman Richard Gorelick said the museum staff is unaware of any such offer but would be pleased to consider a bequest or to refer Mr. Dorizas to another institution.
There may be another reason for the name change, one that is related to the trademark.
According to attorney Kenneth Davies, a bankruptcy trustee involved in the disposition of the Belvedere's restaurants, Mr. Dorizas agreed to pay $1,200 for the continued use of the name but never did so.
On May 26, after Mr. Davies filed a motion in Baltimore Circuit Court, Judge John Carroll Byrnes ordered that Mr. Dorizas cease and desist from using the name. Mr. Davies says the trademark is available for sale to others.
Mr. Dorizas explained that by the time the court case came up, he had decided to proceed with the change in format and no longer wanted the trademark. "The Owl Bar was a legend in everybody's mind and heart. That isn't the case anymore," he said. "But who knows? If a new generation discovers the room, we might even change the name back to the Owl Bar again."
The Baltimore Architecture Foundation will sponsor a two-hour walking tour of Mount Vernon architecture July 17 from 10 a.m. to noon. The cost is $10 per person. The tour begins at the AIA Gallery, 11 1/2 W. Chase St., half a block from the Taos Cafe.