Earlier this month, a spirited crowd of Baltimore County officials and others gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue in Towson to participate with owners Rick Bielski and Eric and Melanie Wagner in the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Charles Village Pub, which will replace the original popular watering hole that burned in January.
Its rebirth is good news for its clientele, made up of the college-age crowd, businessmen and other hangers-on in search of some refreshment at the end of the working day.
The Towson bar scene was pretty stable for years with reliable places like Souris, rumored to have been the first establishment in Baltimore County to receive a liquor license after the repeal of Prohibition.
Discipline in this little corner tavern, wrapped around a corner of building at York Road and Allegheny Avenue, had been dispensed by its late owner Mama Souris.
And there was the venerable smoke-filled Kent Lounge — that dated to 1956 and looked like it — on York Road.
It resembled a gin mill out of a John O'Hara novel or short story decorated with smart, wisecracking dames and their well-heeled, Ivy League-educated, banker-stockbroker-trust fund legatee boyfriends who just might happen to be married.
Things took a turn in sleepy Towson in 1972, when Richie Evans opened The Crease across the street from Hutzler's department store on York Road. The young, well-dressed Frank Leonard prep crowd instantly made it their home away from home, while dining on juicy burgers, sipping beer and, perhaps most important of all, eye shopping.
"Everybody thought I was crazy. You could have shot a cannon on York Road because there was no nighttime walk traffic," Evans, a former University of Virginia All-American lacrosse player, told The Baltimore Sun in an interview at the time.
The rush was on when former Colt Bobby Boyd opened Hooligan's, a bar restaurant, in the former Jade East on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1975. The thirsty packed the place especially when it was time for the weekly "Tight Jeans Contest."
Bixby's opened that year and in 1979, Ridge Warfield opened Spirits in the old Stebbins-Anderson building on York Road, near the old Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad overpass. It was followed by Poor Richards the next year.
The booze boom was fueled by the drinking age that had been lowered to 18 in 1972. College kids raced to Towson, and newspaper reporters began describing the county seat in such lofty terms as "hip," "a little Georgetown" or "New York's Greenwich Village."
(It was probably the last era that anyone referred to Towson as being hip.)
Alas, it wasn't to last. By 1982, because of an increase in drunken driving incidents and other alcohol-related problems, the state legislature raised the legal drinking age to 21.
The one place during those years that seemed to be immune from the youth movement and the rush for fern bars and disco music was Bernie Lee's Penn Hotel at 15 W. Pennsylvania Ave. It was not a hotel as its name implied.
For years, it was the preferred clubhouse for Towson politicians, judges, lawyers and businessmen, who steadfastly stood at the rail, jammed its tables or repaired to its members-only private Quill Club.
Overseeing this defacto headquarters for Baltimore County government was Bernard J. "Bernie" Lee, a veteran restaurateur who began managing the Towson establishment in 1958. In 1967, he purchased it for $800,000. He had previously owned and operated Bernie Lee's Pub on West Chase Street in downtown Baltimore.
The late John Dorsey, The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic, wrote that the Penn Hotel "is to Towson somewhat like Marconi's or Haussner's or Hollander's are (and the Belvedere bar used to be) to Baltimore: It has been around long enough that people take it for granted."
"I went in once in a while for a drink or some dinner, but I wasn't part of the regular crowd of lawyers and politicians because I had no money, and I had no friends who had money who would take me there," recalled retired Baltimore County Circuit Judge John F. Fader II, who was then a struggling young lawyer.
"It was never a place you could go because it wasn't cheap. And I remember Bernie, who was jovial and pleasant," said Fader. "Those were the days when you'd see a parade of judges, lawyers and politicians heading down there around 4 p.m. And that's when the Jim Beam and Jack Daniels really began flowing."
Fader added that the Penn Hotel was a place where a "lot of important and unimportant matters were decided" by judges, lawyers and county pols.
"I always thought the place was filled with drunks, hangers-on and unindicted co-conspirators and, in a few cases, some indicted conspirators," said Jim Genthner, now retired from the State Highway Administration, who was known to occasionally linger over a drink or two there in his salad days.
Genthner said the men "patronizing the bar were all of the World War II and Korean War generation, and distilled spirits, not wine or beer, were the order of the day. Gin, scotch, bourbon were the favorite potables. I don't recall anyone but ladies ordering wine or mixed drinks. The odor of cigarette smoke gently wafted over the bar."
Judge John Grayson Turnbull Jr., the administrative judge for Baltimore County Circuit Court, recalled visiting the Quill Club.
"I went there in my younger days," Turnbull said the other day. "It was a fun place and I have very many fond memories of the Penn Hotel. At any given time, the place was jammed with attorneys and judges and many cases, I can tell you, were settled there."
After Lee died in 1972, his widow tried running it, until closing it in 1977.
Johnny Unitas, Bobby Boyd, Sigmund M. Hyman and William F. Chew purchased the business and turned it into the Baby Doe Mining Co., a Western-themed restaurant and bar that lasted before going under in the 1970s.
It sputtered back to life again as the Penn Hotel until closing for good in the early 1980s.
Eventually, the Penn Hotel fell to the wrecker's ball as it and adjoining properties were leveled to make way forTowson Commons.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times