Manor Tavern customers passed by like mourners yesterday - forming a processional to view the piles of ash and debris from the fire that nearly destroyed the historic restaurant and bar Thursday night.
They saw the old stone dining room where they had celebrated anniversaries by candlelight, the newer dining rooms where they held retirement and birthday parties, the bar where they met to catch up on one another's lives and the terrace where they celebrated marriages.
Some cried as they reminisced. Others lowered their heads as they surveyed the damage, primarily confined to the oldest section of the building, where the three-alarm fire started after the dinner rush in a second-floor office area.
"It's like the death of an era," said Dee Statham, who has lived down the road from the tavern in Monkton for 21 years.
Regulars like Statham, who works at Hayfields Country Club, offered cleanup help - and their kitchens.
Manor Tavern's owners plan to continue catering events even though the fate of the tavern itself is in question.
Built as a stable in the late 1700s, the original building had been used as a blacksmith shop, private house, general store and saloon. At various times it had dirt floors and was home to cockfights and gamblers. Although George Washington never slept at the tavern, his horse is believed to have been stabled there on a few occasions.
The tavern's history was also part of family heritages and local folklore. The property where Statham lives was once lost in a farmers' card game played at the Manor Tavern, she said, adding: "It has a colorful past."
The tavern, in the 15000 block of Old York Road, was a $3 million-a-year operation with a 300-seat restaurant, bar and catering service. It drew customers from around the region to the horse country of northern Baltimore County, not far from the Harford County line.
The catering staff, which has its own fleet of trucks and portable kitchen equipment, will use space at other restaurants and banquet halls to keep wedding receptions, anniversary parties and other special events on schedule.
Terry Lombardi, Manor Tavern's special events coordinator, said the staff's first priority would be events scheduled for the immediate future. "We'll pull them off this weekend and go from there," she said.
She spoke on behalf of the tavern's 44-year-old owner, Mark N. Greene, who was touring the sooty restaurant with insurance adjusters and restoration specialists yesterday while juggling cell phone calls with food suppliers and coordinating a handful of staff - some of whom were in tears.
Baltimore County fire officials probably won't be able to continue their investigation into what started the blaze until the floors have been stabilized. That should be early next week, said department spokesman John Parham.
Managers had cleared the dining rooms and bar last night when they smelled smoke about 10 p.m. and called firefighters. They thought an electrical fire had broken out because no one saw flames and they couldn't turn on the lights on the second floor, Parham said.
The second floor, where the fire appears to have started, collapsed onto the ground level not long after employees noticed the smoke.
Damage was initially estimated at $200,000 for the building and $100,000 for its contents, fire officials said. The blaze, which took about 70 firefighters more than two hours to control, burned a hole through the roof of the older section of the stone and stucco tavern.
Broken windows were visible from the front of the restaurant, where a sign still hung yesterday advertising the prime rib specials on Thursday nights. Tablecloths, cardboard and twisted metal from kitchen equipment were piled nearby.
Anne Conrad, 46, a nurse from Lutherville, stopped at the entrance.
It has been a tradition for her family to come to the Manor Tavern at least four times a year - for her two children's birthdays, her wedding anniversary and usually the New Year's Eve celebration. She and her husband always ordered filet mignon and the kids had crab imperial.
"We've been coming here 20 years," Conrad said. "It was just a wonderful place - everyone was always so friendly. This is sad."