Baltimore's oldest restaurant may get a new owner

Valley Inn has attracted the rich and famous for 178 years

  • A 1935 photo of the Valley Inn at Falls and Hillside Roads in winter with snow and an old car in front.
A 1935 photo of the Valley Inn at Falls and Hillside Roads in winter…
December 18, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

F. Scott Fitzgerald drank gin there, no doubt pondering life's misfortunes.

Hollywood stars Clark Gable and his wife, Carole Lombard, in Baltimore for their annual physicals at Johns Hopkins Hospital, dined there in one of its old-fashioned dining rooms.

Harry S. Truman, then a U.S. senator from Missouri, would drive from Washington in the early 1940s on Sunday afternoons with his wife, Bess, and daughter Margaret to eat and visit with his old World War I buddy, Col. John O. Hatfield Sr. of St. Louis.

For 178 years, denizens of the Green Spring Valley and environs have been calling the Valley Inn home. But now ownership of the inn, which has the distinction of being Baltimore's oldest restaurant, may be changing hands.

The inn has a long and colorful past.

Writer H.L. Mencken, far from his 1524 Hollins St. fortress, also liked to dine there, as well as noted horseman Alfred G. Vanderbilt, who drove in from his horse farm, Sagamore, in Glyndon.

During the 1930s, whippet fanciers from the Northeast would gather there to race their peppy dogs on a long-gone track that was alongside the old inn.

It was the site of the first Maryland polo club games, which began here with Jacqueline Bouvier's (later Kennedy Onassis) father sitting in for a few chukkers. In 1897, the Maryland Hunt Cup race commenced here.

The inn has a certain clubbiness and a definite prep streak about it — everyone seems to have known one another and attended Gilman, St. Paul's, Bryn Mawr, McDonogh or Roland Park Country School together since kindergarten.

It's also a hangout or Brightwood Annex North for those who live at the nearby Falls Road retirement community, who can be found there in droves most days at lunchtime.

It's one of those wonderful, comfortable 18th- or 19th-century fieldstone inns or roadhouses (common throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New England, and rare in these latitudes) that could easily be a setting for a trysting couple right out of a John O'Hara novel or short story, sipping neat scotches or rye Manhattans.

With its random-width squeaky floors, beamed ceilings and fireplaces that impart a wonderfully aged smoky smell to its atmosphere, its guests can't help but be transported back in time.

Its walls decorated with hunt scenes, bentwood chairs and tables lighted with little individual lamps all add up to exude a general coziness and friendliness. It makes one wish that he or she could be marooned here in a blizzard.

It seems that time has stood still, and that's what its devotees like about it. The last addition to the Valley Inn is now nearly 40 years old.

Its staff sometimes can unknowingly drop a malapropism or two.

A friend's brother was dining there recently and asked for a cup of tea. When he inquired as to the selection, he was told by his waiter, "We have Early Grey."

The late Baltimore Sun food critic and writer, John Dorsey, perhaps described it best in a 1971 review in the old Sunday Sun Magazine.

"'And we all ended up at the Valley Inn' is an expression probably as well-known in some circles as Tally-Ho. After a game, after a hunt, after a deb party you could most likely in years past have found some of the valley set there," he wrote. "They may have liked the big old comfortable bar, the vaguely Williamsburg look of the dining room, the respectable drinks."

But change in ownership is in the wind for the venerable inn that has been dispensing drink, food and good cheer since 1832, when its builder, John R. Gwynn, opened it as a tavern.

Sharp-eyed readers of this newspaper and The Towson Times may have read a recent legal notice that restaurateur Ted Bauer, who owns the wildly successful Oregon Grille on Shawan Road, is seeking a liquor license transfer from the Baltimore County Board of Liquor License Commissioners to operate the Valley Inn.

A hearing date on the matter is set for Monday.

If Bauer, who did not return phone calls for this article, is successful, it would mark an end to the 88-year reign of the Hatfield family, who took over operation of the inn in 1922.

John "Bud" Hatfield Jr., who over the decades has been the inn's genial publican, greeter and acknowledged jazz expert, said in a brief telephone interview the other day that it "wasn't a done deal yet."

"We haven't gone to settlement, and nothing has been finalized. I'm not sure what's going to happen," he said.

When Gwynn opened his enterprise on land leased from Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, it sat beside what was then called the Falls Road Turnpike, a busy commercial artery that linked tidewater Baltimore with southern Pennsylvania.

On June 14, 1832, the first horse-drawn passenger trains of the Baltimore & Susquehanna Railroad (later the Pennsylvania Railroad) traveled over the Green Spring Valley branch, which diverted from the mainline at the foot of Lake Roland, now Robert E. Lee Park.

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