A hundred years ago, the meals served in the buildings now housing the Mill Towne Tavern were rather bland - mainly hay and oats.
The horses that dined at what was then a livery stable might have been satisfied, but patrons today have choices ranging from quesadillas to rockfish.
The Mill Towne Tavern offers what owner Keith Curtisslikes to call "upscale casual" dining. There are tablecloths and linen napkins, but the rough granite walls and folk-art paintings impart a more informal atmosphere.
The history of the group of buildings on Old Columbia Pike is a bit of a mystery. In fact, Curtiss said, when he applied for a liquor license, county officials told him the buildings didn't exist on the plat books.
A livery and blacksmith shop occupied two of the five structures that house the restaurant. Because records are sketchy, Curtiss estimates the buildings might have been constructed between 1835 and 1865. He splits the difference and says the structures date from 1850.
Two other buildings were homes, and the building that houses Mill Towne Tavern's kitchen is a more recent addition.
At some point, they became a rambling, multilevel warehouse for Taylor Furniture store.
When landlord Peter Ruffbought the building in 1995, he acquired a shell without plumbing, electricity or interior walls. Even the floors were in danger of collapse.
Curtiss, who was in the real estate business, presented Ruff with a proposal to convert the crumbling buildings into a restaurant.
"Something told me it would be a great restaurant," he said.
Ruff told Curtiss to bring him a business plan. A month later, he did, and they struck a deal.
Curtiss said he envisioned a restaurant that would appeal to a mature, upscale clientele, while keeping the atmosphere casual.
The building was gutted and renovated. Only the barn doors and block and tackle outside remain to show it was once a stable.
The menu, overseen by chef Richard Bulgaris, who previously worked at Clyde's and Piccolo's, includes rockfish, prime rib, shrimp scampi and crab cakes.
"We tend to cater to a more affluent crowd," Curtiss said.
Two dining areas and a bar in the former livery offer seating for 130 people. The upper dining room, decorated in cabernet colors, is called the Hunt Room. The lower level, which includes a two-level terrace, is decorated in forest greens with brown velvet curtains.
The restaurant employs about 40 people.
As Mill Towne Tavern enters its fourth year, several changes are planned. Curtiss is negotiating to buy the property from Ruff. When that transaction is complete, Curtiss wants to open a 3,000-square-foot area in an unused upper part of the restaurant to offer live entertainment and banquets.
Curtiss said the restaurant has exceeded his expectations, but he holds out the possibility of one day returning to the real estate business. For now, however, his attention is on Mill Towne Tavern.
"I want to get to the five-year mark and have this squared away," he said.
Mill Towne Tavern
Where: 3733 Old Columbia Pike; 410-480-0894.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; kitchen closes 10 p.m. on weekends.
Prices: Appetizers, $5.95 to $8.95. Entrees $14.95 to $24.95.
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Discover, Diner Club.