“A wise old owl sat on an oak
the more he saw the less he spoke
the less he spoke the more he heard.”
Those simple verses once shared a vital code with patrons of Baltimore’s premiere speakeasy, the Owl Bar: its glowing bird statue was no mere decoration. No, the bird was instead the very key to not getting busted by raiding feds.
If his eyes were blinking, a shipment of illegal alcohol had arrived and it was safe to drink. If his eyes were not flashing, something fishy was afoot. Look to the owl, and never speak of booze.
Alcohol wasn’t always a dirty word at the Owl Bar. Built in 1903, the bar started life as a legal establishment in the back of the majestic Belvedere hotel.
The Belvedere instantly became the It place for members of high society. Its Owl Bar, on the other hand, was not quite as refined. Elegant lady guests of the Belvedere were far too cultured to visit a bar, and the drinking establishment was therefore relegated to men only.
The bar chugged along in this way for more than a decade, until in 1920 something strange happened: the United States banned the sale of alcohol.
Prohibitionists insisted that the “Great Experiment” would reduce crime. The Owl Bar and thousands of other establishments across the US seemed to take this as a sort of challenge.
Illegal booze flowed in through the Belvedere’s underground tunnels. Suddenly, the Owl Bar was the hottest destination in town. It became known throughout the Eastern Seaboard as the best place in Baltimore for women, gambling, and all kinds of nefarious fun.
When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the Owl Bar’s sordid chapter came to an end, but its good times did not. Movie stars, presidents, and foreign dignitaries across the decades have paid a visit to the former speakeasy, and today the bar is still a hip place to be.
Its location is no doubt part of the appeal: just a few blocks from busy Penn Station and abutting Baltimore’s trendy Mount Vernon neighborhood.
Once shrouded in secrets, the Owl Bar is today celebrated for its history. The back hallway leading to the bar is lined with owl mementos and pictures of famous patrons, from Clark Gable to Al Pacino.
The bar itself is darkly lit, even in the middle of the day, and gives the illusion of a smaller space. Owl chotchkies spill over every mahogany surface.
Blazing above the bar are faux stained-glass windows crafted into verses from “A Wise Old Owl,” the words paying tribute to the bar’s sordid past.
The Prohibition-era owl, too, remains. Perched high on the wall with his gaze directed at the entryway, his blinking eyes still let all who enter know if the hootch flows freely.
The thrill of illegal booze may be gone, but the Owl Bar remains a great time.
The Owl Bar is open seven days a week, though daily times vary. Happy Hour runs weekends from 4-7PM and offers $3 drafts and house wines. Food is plentiful but a little highly priced; plan on paying for the experience in addition to the meal.