Quick recovery prompts owner to call off auction of Woodbine Inn

May 12, 1994|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

With its wood-grain paneling and beer company mirrors, it's hard to imagine the Woodbine Inn as the meeting place of Howard County's elite.

But its casual atmosphere and its location -- on the Howard County side of the Patapsco River on Route 94 -- make it a popular place for West County residents who could just as easily buy the place as eat there.

Last Friday they might have done just that, had a planned auction not been called off by the restaurant's proprietor of eight years, Bob Nolf.

Mr. Nolf, who owns the inn with his wife, Jacqui, suffered his second stroke in March. He planned the auction when he was doubting that his recovery would be as speedy as it turned out to be.

"I feel pretty fortunate . . . I'm glad to be walking and talking at this point," said the white-haired Mr. Nolf, 41, as the lunchtime regulars began filtering in yesterday.

Mr. Nolf is still planning to sell the business and property, but believes he can run the inn long enough to market it properly.

Not that it needs much marketing.

Its regular dinner customers include an assortment of "old Howard County people with money," he said, including Maj. Gen. Edwin Warfield III, grandson of the turn-of-the-century governor.

"They say the reason they like it was they don't have to get dressed up to come here," Mr. Nolf said. "They tell me over and over again, don't change it."

Lunchtime is a different scene, however, with an assortment of farmers, local businessmen, blue-collar workers and home-makers seeking out one of the establishment's burgers, named after local towns, or the seafood.

Had Friday's auction gone on as planned, "I was going to be disappointed, because where was I going to get my good cheeseburger," said Ann Smith, 58, of Mount Airy.

She discovered the place while driving around eight years ago, and fell in love with the $1.99 sandwich and soup special.

"You couldn't eat at home for that much," she said.

Habit and dedication has taken the place of thriftiness, however.

Mrs. Smith now treats herself to a weekly $6 meal of Maryland Crab Soup, the Winfield Burger, cooked medium with mustard, lettuce and pickle, and an iced tea.

"If they don't keep the same personnel, it will be entirely different," Mrs. Smith said.

Mr. Nolf said one of the investment groups that has expressed interest has a local partner, but he said it's too soon to name anyone.

Selling the place shouldn't be too difficult, especially since the deal will include the seasonal drive-in steam

crab business across the street. Mr. Nolf expects to be selling steamed crabs this weekend, in fact.

He boasted to some prospective buyers recently that all he had to do was open the doors to attract business. "I took them across the street to look at the equipment, and 30 seconds after we unlocked the door, a woman stopped and asked us if we had crabs."

Despite his medical problems, Mr. Nolf was so confident of his recovery that he left the hospital after three days to get back to work -- against the advice of his doctors.

"You take your medicine today?" asked waitress Sherry Winter, whom Mr. Nolf calls "the personality of this place."

"Yes," he replied

Ms. Winter's mothering is a good quality in a waitress, said Laurie Mitchell, 28, a local who brought her grandfather from Towson for lunch yesterday.

"Usually, we can't enjoy a meal because the kids are acting crazy, but she holds the baby half the time. We love coming here."

Another person who loves "everything and everybody" at the Woodbine Inn is Basil "Bas" Bowman, 79, a Florence native who stopped in for his daily coffee and toast yesterday.

Mr. Bowman says he has been going to the Woodbine tavern since the early 1930s, when the building was converted from an auto dealership that sold Model T Fords, and later Plymouths.

The inn -- the only one in the area -- used to be known as a rough-and-tumble place back when it attracted workers from a canning factory and paper mill, but recent owners have made it more family-oriented.

In the old days, Mr. Bowman recalled, "If you didn't come in here and behave yourself, you didn't get out" in one piece.

"He's my first customer -- his dollar bill, it's hanging on the wall," said Mr. Nolf of Mr. Bowman.

"I'll be the last, too," Mr. Bowman replied.

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