In Monkton, customers eagerly wait on tavern

Manor: A fire may have damaged its structure, but its popularity remains intact as the owner works to reopen.

October 24, 2002|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

Peggy and Ben Coster dropped by the Manor Tavern in Monkton yesterday morning. But not for lunch. It was too early and besides, the restaurant wasn't serving bread bowls of crab bisque or "Manor burgers" anyway. It's been closed since a fire heavily damaged the building two months ago.

The Towson couple came to make reservations for Thanksgiving dinner -- a task they could have accomplished just as easily by phone. But for the Costers, and for hundreds of other regulars at the popular northern Baltimore County dining spot, calling wasn't enough. They needed to see how the renovations were coming, to make sure the place was reopening a week from today and to say hello to the owner, Mark N. Greene.

"It's the only show in town," Ben Coster, 81, said of the place that devotees refer to simply as "The Tavern." Coster is a retired sales engineer who has been eating lunch at the tavern and celebrating holidays, birthdays and anniversaries there with his wife for nearly two decades. "The food's good, and we're creatures of habit."

Since the three-alarm fire Aug. 29, the parking lot of the restaurant has been crowded with pickup trucks and workers' vans.

On any given day, including weekends, dozens of roofers and electricians, drywallers and carpenters swarm the building -- replacing the electrical work and heating and cooling systems, rebuilding the offices and the kitchen, painting, carpeting and papering. Although three wooden booths and the original bar were saved, most of the tavern's furniture was damaged by smoke and water and is being restored.

The workers are bringing back to life a place that real estate agent Charles "Rusty" Latrobe has been frequenting for 30 years. Latrobe, who lives nearby, describes the "comfortable neighborhood atmosphere" of the place.

He also points to its storied history. Although George Washington didn't sleep here, his horse did, according to Baltimore County historian John McGrain. The original building of the 300-seat restaurant dates to the 1700s and served as a barn for Slade's Tavern across the way. Over the years, it's been used as a blacksmith shop, private house, general store, saloon and a place for cockfights and gambling. It has been a restaurant and bar since the 1940s.

The fire originated in the second-floor office over the restaurant and caused more than $1 million in damage, according to county fire investigators and the restaurant's owner.

Greene, 44, had returned to his home in Phoenix a few miles from the restaurant when he got the call that his business was ablaze. As he stood in the parking lot with the neighbors watching the restaurant burn, Greene said he felt "devastated."

The next morning Greene pulled into the lot at 6:45, uncertain of the extent of the damage but never doubting that he would rebuild. "This is what I do for a living," he said.

Amid interviews with investigators, discussions with contractors, and hundreds of details and decisions that consumed him on that day after the fire, the restaurant owner said he couldn't help but notice how much his restaurant meant to so many people.

Hundreds of regulars stopped by to look at the building, offer condolences and even their kitchens. So many people came that a fence had to be constructed in the driveway along Old York Road to keep the curious away. In addition, area restaurants and country clubs -- the tavern's competitors -- offered use of their banquet facilities to Greene.

"It's more popular than I thought it ever was," said Greene, still sounding amazed eight weeks after the fire.

Greene was able to continue his catering business over the past two months by cooking for and holding events off-site.

Normally, a restoration project of this size would take about three months, according to Michael Troxell, production supervisor for Popowski Brothers Inc., a disaster restoration company overseeing the work. But the rebuilding will be completed in about eight weeks.

The restaurant's reputation has assisted in the rebuilding effort. "Because it's such a well-known place, I don't have to give directions out here," Troxell said. "People know it and everyone's been cooperating."

For the past month, two signs outside the sprawling building in rural horse country have counted down the days until the tavern's reopening Oct. 31. Regulars like Latrobe, who drives past the tavern daily, don't need the reminder.

When the Manor Tavern opens its doors he will be there, no matter what. "I won't miss it unless the worst happens," he vowed.

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