History Lesson on Main Street

September 21, 1993

The abrupt closing of Cockey's Tavern, a landmark restaurant in Westminster that had been operating for well over 150 years, demonstrates the difficulty of running a small business in a downtown area these days.

A well-known establishment with a steady clientele, Cockey's Tavern nonetheless had to throw in the towel after struggling with the languid reconstruction of Main Street, reports that the owner was trying to sell the building and a defection of longtime employees who were unsettled by rumors of financial difficulties. Repairs ordered by the Carroll County Health Department were left undone.

The exact details leading to the restaurant's closing last week may never be fully known, although owner Robert Lowry said he will explain all to the liquor board in an effort to retain his license.

Mr. Lowry, who decamped for his Florida condo, says he is attempting to reorganize financially and to reopen the historic watering hole, which was built in the early 1800s as part of a series of inns along the Baltimore-to-Pittsburgh stagecoach line.

The tavern owner blamed this year's street reconstruction project, which the city of Westminster is undertaking to replace rapidly aging water and sewer lines and to correct drainage problems, for disrupting his upscale dining business.

Even though the block in front of Cockey's has yet to be torn up, people from outside the city assume it is and no longer even think about driving into Westminster, Mr. Lowry said. Others familiar with the town are apparently unwilling to make the detours necessary to get to the restaurant, or to cope with the hassle of finding parking nearby, especially during the limited lunch hour.

The handsome Victorian interior, with wine-colored drapes, old family portraits, double parlor and low-hanging chandelier, was a favorite of patrons for business lunches and for special evenings. Its American inn fare had been enlarged to include a rich continental, even international, fare that broadened the tavern's culinary appeal but also increased prices.

Some question whether the tavern can be revived without changes, even on a rebuilt Main Street. While much is made of the venerable establishment's history, and its alleged resident "ghosts," the hard fact is that a restaurant must appeal to today's customers and tastes if it is to survive. A business attains historic status because it has adapted over time, a challenge that is not unique to Cockey's Tavern or to Westminster.

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