About 70 years ago, Dorothy Burns was a teenager and made a good living waiting tables at Graystone Lodge, a popular dining spot for travelers along U.S. 1 in Bel Air. She would like to see business prosper again in Harford County's oldest dated building.
Burns recalled white linen tablecloths, men in business suits and generous tips during the late 1930s. Most of her customers were traveling between Washington and New York, and some stayed overnight in the lodge's second-story guest rooms.
"This was always a really busy place where a lot of big shots from Washington and New York came," said Burns, 85. They were basically high-class, mostly all men in suits, and they were always good tippers."
Burns has offered to serve at least one more dinner on the day new owners Steven and Anna Bavett reopen the lodge. And she may well be waiting on a state official.
"I will be that first diner," Aris Melissaratos, Maryland's business and economic development secretary, promised during a ceremonial groundbreaking last week.
The restaurant, which closed more than 50 years ago, was one of many businesses that prospered over the centuries in the stone building on Business U.S. 1 at Old Joppa Road. A family or two made a home there but eventually abandoned the property, and the lodge became a vacant shell of its prosperous past. Neighbors recalled a ragged dress hanging as a makeshift curtain in a window for years.
The Bavetts, who live in Baldwin in Baltimore County, bought the building for $200,000 five years ago and are in the final phase of restoring it. They said they expect to open the restaurant early next year.
At the groundbreaking, Burns easily lifted a clump of sod, along with the Bavetts, their children and several state and county officials.
"I have always exercised, so a shovel of dirt is not heavy," said Burns, a lifelong Bel Air resident.
The solid stone building, which dates to 1780, probably began as a carriage house in the post-Revolutionary War era. From stories the Bavetts have pieced together and artifacts they have found, the lodge, vacant for the past three decades, has also seen life as an inn, an oyster house and probably a short-lived speakeasy.
Annetta Schott, an archaeologist with the Archeological Society of the Northern Chesapeake, led research on the property in April that uncovered 18th-cen- tury artifacts. The Bavetts' two sons have done some digging of their own and have a boxful of finds and several oyster shells to show for their effort.
"We found stuff inside and out, like toys, old teddy bears and a bent fork," said Nicholas Liberto, 9. "We like this house because it's really old."
"It is like a billion years old," said his 6-year-old brother Matthew Bavett.
"No, only 220 years," Nicholas corrected.
The National Park Service recently granted the building landmark status, making its owners eligible for federal and state tax credits to defray the renovation costs.
The Bavetts are restoring the main dining room, which runs the length of the first floor, to seat nearly 100, some of whom might arrive on horseback: The cozy room, with stone fireplaces at each end, opens to a back porch overlooking county parkland.
"That park connects to the Ma and Pa Trail so we will have hitching posts here for horses whose riders want to stop in," Steven Bavett said.
The couple will add parking and another 1,500 square feet, including a two-story kitchen staffed by their partner, Demetris Nicolaidis, a chef who frequently shares his recipes on local television and radio.
"I have been known to work small miracles in small kitchens, but this one will be large even by restaurant standards," Nicolaidis said, promising succulent shrimp, crab cakes, Kobe steaks and Joe's stone crabs, a delicacy that will be flown in fresh from Florida.
After the groundbreaking, guests meandered through the building, sipping wine and remarking on the progress the Bavetts have made. While lunching on Nicolaidis' savory fare, many marveled at hand-hewed beams, stonework that has weathered centuries, and copies of photographs now stored in the Library of Congress.
"This is a great addition to the neighborhood," said Michael Pons, owner of Country Life Farm just down the road.
The central location and history bode well for the Bavetts' undertaking, said Carol L. Deibel, Bel Air's director of planning and community development.
"When you come into Bel Air, it makes you feel like you are coming home," she said. "There is so much new here now, but this gives citizens a chance to come back and relish the old."