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Behind Bars: Baltimore's Historic Taverns

Three historic establishments poured pints through the age of sail, defied the "ban on booze" and still concoct cool drinks today.

H.L. Mencken, aka the “sage of Baltimore,” lived here for more than 45 years and declared the city a part of him. He wrote about the cobblestone lanes, the Chesapeake crabs and tavern life. The Owl Bar in what was once the Belvedere Hotel, one of the writer’s favorite perches, remains just as popular today as in the Roaring ’20s. If walls could talk, Baltimore’s historic watering holes would tell of literati like Mencken and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the sea tales of sailors and the delicious defiance of Prohibition. Head to these longtime establishments where Baltimore stories are still in the making. 

Owl Bar interior
Inside The Owl Bar (©Merkle Photography)

John Steven Ltd.

Inspired by a Fells Point “steam cart” that once served shellfish to dock hands and seamen, this circa-1911 drinking house steams its shrimp and mussels at the bar for easy access. Poignant wafts of locally made Old Bay seasoning rise from the steamers teasing diners today. John Steven offers multiple dining areas in two adjoining brownstones built in the early 1800s. With its original mahogany bar, walls lined by old brewery signs and an antique “speakeasy table,” the rustic tavern differs from the romantic patio and upscale dining room’s white tablecloths and fireplace.
1800 Thames St., 410.327.5561

John Steven
John Steven Ltd. in Fells Point (©Kelsey B. Snell)

John Steven steamed shrimp
At John Steven Ltd., bartenders steam shrimp behind the bar. (©Kelsey B. Snell)

The Horse You Came In On Saloon

This Fells Point bar (est. 1775) claims to be America’s oldest saloon as well as Edgar Allan Poe’s last stop before he died on a nearby street in October 1849. (Above the bar, a dark portrait of the poet honors his ghost, said to still roam the premises.) Today patrons know the watering hole for its all-day live music and the “Old No. 7 Club” whose members stash their own bottles of Jack Daniel’s behind the bar. 
1626 Thames St., 410.327.8111

Outside The Horse
Outside "The Horse" in Fells Point (©Kelsey B. Snell)

The Owl Bar

Opened in the early 20th century, the Belvedere’s bar became an instant gathering place for the hotel’s renowned guests (Clark Gable!) and blue-collar locals as well as writers like the self-described “ombibulous” Mencken. The amber hues of stained glass windows and wooden benches evoke a German bierhaus, but even during Prohibition, The Owl Bar was all about the hard stuff. While the “drought” lasted, the owl mascots mounted around the bar signaled the arrival of new “shipments” with their blinking eyes.
1 E. Chase St., 410.347.0888 

RECIPE: Cranberry Gin Rickey 

In Fitzgerald’s "The Great Gatsby," playboy Tom Buchanan serves gin rickeys to his wife Daisy and the dapper Jay Gatsby on a sweltering summer day. “They certainly look cool,” Gatsby says, and then the characters take “long, greedy swallows.” Honoring Fitzgerald, who lived in Baltimore from 1933 to 1935, the staff at The Owl created a WHERE exclusive: this “cool” twist on Gatsby’s favorite refresher.


Juice of 1/2 lime

1 1/2 oz. gin

2 oz. white cranberry juice

Club soda

Fresh cranberries


Fill a chilled rocks glass with ice. Squeeze in the juice of half a lime, and pour in gin. Add cranberry juice, top off with club soda, and stir. Garnish drink with fresh cranberries. Enjoy.

Owl Cran Rickey
The Owl Bar's Cranberry Gin Rickey