When the Belvedere Hotel opened its doors on December 14, 1903, it became Baltimore’s first luxury hotel. Off the posh lobby of the Beaux Arts–style building was the Owl Bar, then known simply as the Bar Room. Because it served alcohol, admission was restricted to men. The bar quickly became one of the city’s most popular and notorious watering holes, frequented by clientele ranging from businessmen and politicians to bookies and gangsters.
Although the spittoons are gone, today the Owl Bar looks much as it did when it opened. The walls are ornate brickwork and dark wood paneling. Vintage chandeliers illuminate the dimly lit space. Murals of Renaissance scenes harken to a brief period when the bar was known as the Falstaff Room. Stained glass windows, backlit behind the bar, feature images of owls and the following nursery rhyme:
A wise old owl sat in an oakthe more he saw the less he spoke. The less he spoke the more he heardwhy can’t we all be like that wise old bird?
The simple rhyme assumed additional significance with the onset of Prohibition on January 17, 1920. For the next 13 years, the bar operated as a speakeasy and served bootleg liquor to in-the-know patrons.
Then owner Colonel Consolvo added to the bar’s owl-themed décor when he brought in two large plaster owl statues and placed them on the cash registers. The owls were named Sherry Belle and John Eager Howard, and they had electric glass eyes that signaled the availability of contraband whiskey. An amber eye on each owl would blink when the hotel’s basement had liquor and the coast was clear of law enforcement. When Prohibition ended in 1933, the owls mysteriously disappeared.
Like many urban establishments, the Belvedere Hotel fell on hard times by the 1970s. Although used briefly for low-rent student housing, the building closed in January 1972 due to code violations. Contractor Victor Frenkil bought the property at auction in 1976 and set about returning the Belvedere to its former glory.
When the bar reopened, it was officially named the Owl Bar. And thus began a search for the original eponymous birds. Eventually, Frenkil’s friend found them in New York. Late one night in April 1977, they mysteriously reappeared in the locked bar, with a new poem:
Where we’ve been, what we’ve seen No matter the din, no one will glean.But if your eyes are clear today you can tell The Owls of Belvedere—have returned from Hell!
The revamped Owl Bar hosted patrons merrily until around 1990, when financial problems and a dispute with the city led to Frenkil leaving with the owls in tow. In 1991, restaurateur Dion Dorizas bought the bar and transformed it into the Taos Cafe, a southwest American eatery, with coyotes in place of the beloved owls. Locals did not go along for the ride. By 1995, Frenkil and the birds were back.
The 30-pound owls now sit on high perches behind the bar and continue to watch over staff and patrons. And, sometimes, they still wink.
Know Before You Go
The bar is open from Wednesday to Saturday, 2:00 p.m. to midnight.