After the fire, Knotty Pine Inn reopens with its corner-bar charm intact

The Baltimore Sun

Less than a minute after setting foot inside the Knotty Pine Inn, we knew we were at the right spot.

My friend Joe and I were on the hunt for a charming corner bar near Brewers Hill when we spotted the Knotty Pine. A longtime hangout for neighborhood residents, the Knotty Pine was ravaged by fire last February. Unfazed, business owners Fred and Alice March helped renovate the bar and reopened it five months later.

Joe and I had just walked in the place when Fred March leaned over the bar and asked us for our IDs. That in itself is nothing special. But the way he asked us said a lot about what kind of place the Knotty Pine is.

"Hey, guys, I've never met you before," March said, "Can you show me your IDs?"

After he scanned our licenses, March introduced himself and shook our hands.

Now this tells me two things: One, that March is diligent about not serving minors. Two, that March pays attention to the people who come into his bar, and goes the extra mile to make newcomers feel welcome. Neither of us has had the chance to get back there, but I'll bet if we walked in a couple days after this first time, he would have remembered our names.

After he'd checked our IDs and greeted us, March asked us what we'd like to drink. I looked at the row of a half-dozen taps and asked for two draft Yuenglings, which cost $5. That's $2.50 each - pretty cheap these days. Besides Yuengling, the Pine also serves Blue Moon, Budweiser, Smithwick's, Guinness ($4.25) and a few other domestics.

Joe and I hopped on two stools and stared at the wood bar. Years ago, a former owner laid out baseball cards on top of the bar, and covered it in shellac. The card-topped bar was the only thing that remained after the fire, Alice March said.

"It was the worst disaster and crisis my husband and I have ever lived through," Alice March said. "[The fire] consumed the whole building."

An old electrical wire started the fire the night of last year's Super Bowl. The Marches lived above the bar, and had just gone to bed when a lingering bartender alerted them to the fire. But by the time they found the source of the fire, it was too late to put it out themselves. The Marches lost their personal belongings as the fire consumed the building.

Before the fire, the Knotty Pine had knotty pine walls (imagine that). But the pine, lost in the fire, was too expensive to replace. Instead, the bar got new arched windows, which let more light in during the day, and a beige and green motif inside.

The lighting was my only complaint about the Knotty Pine. There wasn't much house lighting, but there were a couple of neon beer signs inside, which, when lit, made it too bright. No bar should be bright inside at night - especially not a low-key corner bar like this.

Another detail worth noting: It's almost as if the Knotty Pine feels too new since it reopened. I never went to the Knotty Pine before it burned down, but I've seen photos of the old interior, and it looks like the fire took a good deal of character away from the place. And character is something that isn't easily replaced - it usually accumulates over the course of years, not months.

The Marches took over the Knotty Pine about 10 years ago, and it could be 10 years before the inside feels comfortably worn-in. But I'm confident that with the kind of care the Marches are willing to put into this bar, one day it will.

In the past few years, the neighborhood surrounding the Knotty Pine has changed significantly. As it transitioned from blue collar to white collar, the Knotty Pine has refused to get lost in the shuffle.

"The Knotty Pine itself is an institution," March said. "We've had a couple people coming here 30 years. The new and the old mix very well."

With people like Fred and Alice March behind the bar, I don't doubt it.

Huckas closed

I've heard reports that Huckas, the three-year-old hybrid sports bar/hookah lounge on Boston Street, has closed. The phone number has been disconnected, and passers-by told me there is paper in the windows (the mark of death for a bar or restaurant).

If I had to speculate on why it went under, I'd say the space was just too big and, just like the late Bedrock, it suffered from an identity crisis. Was it a sports bar? Or a hookah bar? It ended up being the worst of both worlds.

Not to mention the smoking ban, which threw co-owner Jay Sikander for a loop. I don't know if they ever really recovered from it. But I do want to take a moment and tell you about the time a couple of friends and I went there a couple of years ago. We walked to the back part of the downstairs, where a couple of guys were smoking a hookah. Our conversation went something like this:

Them: Hey! Have you ever tried one of these bongs? They're crazy!

Us: Yes, actually, they're called hookahs.

Them: Dude. You gotta try one of these bongs. We'll get you one. Hey, can we get another bong? We want a bong for our friends here.

Us: Uhhh ... thanks!

if you go

The Knotty Pine Inn is at 801 S. Conkling St. Hours are 10 a.m.-2 a.m. daily. Call 410-534-9701.

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