Last Halloween, as flames licked up the walls of The Mt. Washington Tavern, groups of horrified customers watched the blaze ravage their favorite hangout, while the co-owners pledged to rebuild.
Rob Frisch and Dave Lichty made good on their promise.
Just a year and a few days after the two-alarm fire, the tavern emerged from the ashes as an entirely redesigned restaurant and bar, open to the public as of Tuesday at 4 p.m.
Former customers and neighboring business owners in Mount Washington Village said they’re thrilled to welcome the tavern back, even though it’s hardly recognizable thanks to massive renovations to the tune of $4 million for the 10,000-square-foot space.
But despite the high dollar amount, the past year was mostly painful emotionally, not financially, Frisch said. They expect to be profitable immediately, thanks to comprehensive insurance plans that covered “pretty much 100 percent” of the total cost, he said.
Their policy included code upgrades — such as flood safeguards and disability access — and loss of business income insurance, that about covered the salaries of eight managers and owners for 12 months, he said.
“Theoretically, you’ll open up your doors with the same cash flow, or the same amount of money in the bank, as when you closed, so it’s not all coming out of your pocket,” he said. “It pays to be well insured. It’s expensive, but it pays.”
Even though the management team was taken care of, Frisch said the owners wanted to ensure the rest of the employees wouldn’t be left out in the cold. They helped place workers in temporary positions elsewhere, he said, and were assisted by friends who offered to employ those individuals in the interim.
“It was a horrible time to lose your job,” Frisch said. “It’s never a good time to lose your job, but we were worried sick about them because they’re like family to us.”
That effort seems to have paid off. The tavern retained all the same kitchen staff, all the same bar staff and about 80 percent of the wait staff, Frisch said.
The tavern, which has been a cornerstone of Mount Washington Village since 1979, now features a more spacious and wide layout and new accommodations.
The dining rooms appear larger as they fill with natural light, and an elevator and paved ramps make the restaurant accessible to disabled patrons. The new building sits about 12 inches higher off the ground, Frisch said, to comply with flood codes.
There’s also a greater emphasis on Maryland culture. The raw bar has a more prominent location in the large, first floor dining area called the Chesapeake Room, where antique oyster cans, decoys and similar decorations adorn the walls.
They worked hard to preserve the original ambiance, Frisch said. It feels slightly more upscale, but rustic touches like aged-wood walls and beams hearken back to the dark-colored furniture that originally occupied the space.
“It’s exciting,” Frisch said. “It’s been a long year — a rollercoaster, you know? Obviously, it was extremely upsetting at the time of the fire, and now we’re extremely happy to be open and seeing our old friends’ and customers’ faces again.”
Owners expect several of the improvements to increase the tavern’s profits, Frisch said, particularly the “sky bar,” which was previously an outdoor, informal bar area. It was one of the most popular and lucrative attractions, Frisch said, but it only brought in dollars when the weather was favorable.
Now, “you won’t recognize it,” he said. The second level is all indoors, expect for a relatively small deck closed off by sliding, accordion-like doors. There are low, cushioned seats next to a fireplace, and an extensive, fancier bar.
The restaurant and bar had generated a great deal of foot traffic to the rest of the business district, which has been missed, said Bryan McGlory, a manager at The Desert Café, across the street.
When the tavern closed, McGlory said, their business dropped off slightly, so they’re looking forward to welcoming the tavern back to the neighborhood.
“The area did slow down quite a bit,” he said. “All the restaurants slowed down a little, because we didn’t have as many walk-ins.”
Some customers were at a loss for words Tuesday.
“It’s just, it’s just … I mean, this is just total class,” said long-time customer Frank Hagan as he gestured toward the Pimlico Room on the second floor.
The Pimlico Room features authentic memorabilia donated from Pimlico Racetrack — officials and jockeys had been regular customers, Frisch said.
Loyal customers will notice several elements that have been preserved, such as snippets of the original interior stone and brick. The front foyer, with its double entrances, still has the same basic shape, and the first-floor bar is almost in the same spot.
“We wanted to preserve the [stone] walls and try to keep the building looking as similar to the Tavern as it was, but upgrading it at the same time,” Frisch said.
Many customers Tuesday seemed shocked by the drastic changes and struggled to get their bearings. But that’s not important, several people said. Only one thing matters: The Mt. Washington Tavern is back.
“Never, not even for one second,” did owners question whether it would be, Frisch said.
“We were committed,” he said. “The day of the fire, our contractor, who was a friend of ours, was standing on the sidewalk next to us, and we were like, ‘OK, let’s get to work.’ We were already trying to figure out how we were either going to repair what was done, or replace it.”