Dave Lichty and Rob Frisch, owners of Mt. Washington Tavern,… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
On the morning a fire devasted the Mt. Washington Tavern, its two owners, Rob Frisch and Dave Lichty, rushed to the scene convinced the incident would be minor.
"While we were driving down, my wife said, 'I still have to get a Halloween costume because I'm bartending tonight,'" Lichty said. "We didn't know what were walking into."
The two owners had been working at the restaurant since their early 20s, each doing his best to keep together a bar and restaurant that was famous for its consistency and that had become a mainstay in the city, and especially during the annual Preakness Stakes.
It wasn't until they got to the scene that they realized just how epic the loss would be. Estimates put the damage at $2.5 million.
"You were so helpless just watching it go up in smoke," Frisch said.
They say that the people you meet at your favorite bar become family. But for regulars at Mt. Washington Tavern, the old cliche resonates. The bar and restaurant wasn't just a place for an after-work beer, or where they went after a lacrosse game, or even the Preakness. It was also a place where they fell in love, marked anniversaries, reminisced about their youth.
Without it, the regulars lost a gathering place, the proverbial place where everyone knows your name. Plans for next year's Preakness were once unthinkable without the tavern. "It was like seeing a member of the family burning down," said a longtime customer, Georganne Hale, Pimlico Race Course's racing director.
For its owners, it was also where they grew up, forged a decades-long friendship, and have worked their whole life. Every corner of the sprawling restaurant, from the rooftop to the raw bar, held a memory, an anecdote.
With little left from a restaurant that had been in the neighborhood for nearly 80 years in one form or another, they're now working toward restoring their home away from home, aiming to get it ready, with any luck, by next Preakness.
Frisch and Lichty have spent most of their adult life at the tavern, working all kinds of positions, from bartending to managing. Lichty's marriage to the bar has been longer than the one to his wife, Cathy, whom he met there almost 17 years ago.
"I've worked every position except sautee," Lichty said.
While it started as a blue-collar watering hole, Sparwasser's, by 1986, when the two of them joined the staff, the tavern had become a preppy mecca, immortilized in 1980 in "The Official Preppy Handbook."
Among the clients, there were "lacrosse players, yuppies, a lot of Roland Park folks, and Guilford and private school kids," Frisch recalled.
There were also construction workers and people from the neighborhood. "It wasn't snooty," Lichty said.
The two of them were typical tavern customers. They both grew up in Northern Baltimore County and came from "solid backgrounds," in Frisch's words; "yuppie" in Lichty's.
"I was pretty preppy growing up," Lichty said, laughing. "I wore green and yellow pants!"
Frisch, at 26, started out as a bartender, and Lichty, then 20, was his barback. Over time, it became hard to leave, not that they wanted to. Though they didn't know each other at first, they developed a bond that lasts today.
"You just got sucked into friendships," Frisch said.
"I wouldn't have stayed for that long if it wasn't for people like Rob," Lichty said. "This was a place where you could look forward going to work."
Frisch was a groomsman at Lichty's wedding. And when four years ago, Frisch was offered the tavern by the original owner, Ted Bauer, he knew he wanted Lichty as a partner.
"I knew what I was getting with him, and he knew what he was getting with me," Lichty said. As for the rest of the staff, they think of it as a surrogate family, with one person who's worked there for 31 years and a couple of others who've worked for 20.
That camaraderie, among staff, and among the customers, is one of the restaurant's hallmarks, as much a distinction as its gold-leaf signage and the Beer Hall of Fame drinking board.
"Everyone knew one another," said Hale, who's been a regular since 1984. The bartenders knew the customers so well, "It got so that you'd have your drink ready before you walked in."
Charlie Korns, a Virginia small-business consultant, comes every year for Preakness for that very reason. "It always gave me a down-home feeling there, like you were part of it more than a customer," he said.
Said Frisch, "We have super loyal and regular clientele. We celebrate weddings, births of their children. It's a very warm relationship."
That attachment to the tavern was evident the day of the fire. When customers started showing up around 5 p.m. for happy hour, they instead set up an impromptu bar in front of DK Salon & Spa, where owners and staff were spending the day.
Where racing fans gather