House of Welsh, place where 'happy memories' were made, is closing Owners plan to open bar-restaurant in Del.

January 23, 1998|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

The House of Welsh -- the aged downtown restaurant-bar where political deals were cut between slices of sizzling steak and shots of Maryland rye -- is closing next week.

Owned by the same family since 1900, its three 1830s rowhouses were located out the back door of City Hall and attracted politicians, lobbyists, bookmakers, lawyers, policemen, judges and reporters who wanted plain, tasty food served in an unhurried manner -- the epitome of an old-time Baltimore steakhouse.

Martin J. Welsh, the third generation of his family to own the business at 301 Guilford Ave., said he will reopen in Fenwick Island, Del.

"Right now I have no help left. I'm closing down but don't want a lot of people here for one last time," the owner said, adding, "The building is up for sale."

The institution's lengthy career has been studded with history, gossip and good times. It has been called the oldest bar and restaurant in Baltimore continuously owned by the same family.

Tucked into an out-of-the-way spot once near warehouses, freight elevators and rag factories at Saratoga and Guilford, it sat just north of the path of destruction of the 1904 Baltimore fire. All the city's telegraph offices were destroyed, but a lone copper wire was rigged to the building. Telegraphers tapped Morse Code accounts to other cities and newspapers from this spot.

As if to make its presence better known, about 50 years ago the Welsh buildings were painted jet black and its facade covered with signs for steaks, chops and seafood, as well as for its "Black Bottle," Maryland rye whiskey supplied by local distillers.

"We don't get any calls for rye any more," said barmaid Patricia Hall. "The seal on this Pikesville rye bottle isn't even broken."

In more recent times, most of the old ads disappeared under a covering of gray Formstone.

"People had to look for it, but they found it," said former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who recalled that in the 1950s city budgets were trimmed and fattened in a private room upstairs at the restaurant.

Schaefer said he had a "head full of happy memories about the place," which he recalled from the days when it sat under the iron truss work of the Guilford Avenue Elevated, a streetcar-only trestle that extended from Saratoga to Biddle Street until 1950.

"One night we were debating a civil rights bill at the City Council," Schaefer recalled "and Henry Parks -- a wonderful, dignified man -- said, 'I can't go over to the House of Welsh and go in the corner bar.'

"In a very personal way, it was this incident that brought the rights movement to my attention."

Regular customers appreciated its warm and sociable bar -- which once adhered to an all-male policy. Women were admitted in the 1960s.

The "Fighting First" Councilman Jim Duffy stood at the bar for his daily lunch in the 1940s. He called it a "Melrose sam'ich" -- a shot of Melrose rye.

The steakhouse's decor reminded some of a Baltimore rowhouse filled with mementos, crumbling prints and photos -- including the old Pimlico club house, Albaugh's Theatre on Charles Street and scenes of Druid Hill Park and Mount Royal Terrace.

A reminder of the 1904 fire is a fragile front page from the Baltimore American: "Baltimore's Awful Calamity."

For much of its career, the House of Welsh was identified with one dish -- a big steak served on a red-hot metal platter that sizzled as it was brought to the table. But for all its reputation as a beef house, longtime customers associate the place with other foods.

Even though its location was off the beaten track, it won recognition. It was featured in Holiday magazine's 1947 spread on Baltimore. More recently, its bar was filmed on the television series "Homicide: Life on the Street."

"It was a very Baltimore spot. I loved the steaks and the french fries," said the Rev. Michael Roach, the pastor of St. Bartholomew's Church in Manchester. "But when I'd pull up there, the people with me would question, "Is this place still open?' "

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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