Then + Now: The Owl Bar and Those Blinking Birds

In: Eat + Drink, Then + Now

When you have a past as rich as The Belvedere’s, it’s fun to wander down memory lane–especially when the guide is Baltimore Sun writer Richard Gorelick (if it sounds like we’re sucking up just because he happens to be the Sun‘s restaurant critic, well…wouldn’t you?).

Here is his fun look back at The Owl Bar. (Photos, courtesy of The Baltimore Sun.)

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There are two large plaster owls at The Owl Bar, the tavern at the Belvedere Hotel. The 30-pound owls have glowing eyes that sometimes blink and sometimes don’t blink. Legend has it that during Prohibition, blinking-eyed owls meant that the coast was clear, and liquor was flowing freely, and static-eyed owls meant please, everybody, be cool because the feds were sniffing around tonight. It’s hard, of course, to prove such a thing didn’t happen.

No one would ever write, “I recall going to The Owl Bar, where the owls’ blinking eyes meant nothing.”

But my problem with the story is not the absence of written proof. It’s that the whole thing makes no sense. It seems, at best, a very dodgy system for keeping patrons informed. You’d just get used to the eyes blinking and not notice them not blinking.

Meanwhile, the owls have plenty of very interesting and verifiable facts attached to them. Someone absconded with them twice, and they stayed missing for extended periods of time, only to be OWL BAR bal-bpspeakeasyinspirationfox-20150122returned without explanation.

The occasion of their second return coincided with the reopening of The Owl Bar in 1977, following a six-year shuttering of the pub and the hotel itself. So sudden, and surprising, was their return that the new owners of the Belvedere Hotel thought to convene a select committee of seven veteran customers in the Owl Bar, bal-owl-bar-20150122including a few who patronized the pub in the 1930s, to determine if the owls were the real thing. “The Belvedere Owl Authentication Committee, otherwise known as the BOAC, yesterday held its first and last formal meeting … to decide if the plaster owls returned by a phantom thief a while back are the real ones,” the Baltimore Sun reported.

“Only our committee, which incidentally offers over 300 years of Belvedere Owl watching, can, by our endorsement as to the legitimacy of the returned owls, calm and restore tranquility to a doubtful, confused and skeptic public,” said George S. Goodhue Jr., 59, the group’s chairman.

The owls, the BOAC decided, were the real thing. No mention was made of the Prohibition legend.


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