It was after the 2008 Super Bowl game when the New York Giants ruined the New England Patriots perfect season that the Knotty Pine was engulfed in flames. Ironically, it was also “the first weekend of the smoking ban in Baltimore” added Alice March, owner of the Knotty Pine, 801 South Conkling Street.
An illegally lit cigarette did not ignite the fire. The fire started in the electrical breaker box in the basement. Smoke alerted the only person still up at 3 a.m.; the bartender. “He saved our lives,” said March who lives above the bar with her husband, Knotty Pine co-owner Fred “Coach” March. “The smoke was almost in our faces on the second floor and we got out just in time.”
Alice March reported that “the whole building caved in. The fire went through the roof.” They had to rebuild from the walls up. March discovered that the knotty pine paneling had hidden a brick wall of windows that have now been restored.
The Knotty Pine is a charming bar and restaurant that has no knotty pine! The only thing that survived the fire was the oak bar and the trough that dates back to 1936 when the Knotty Pine’s first liquor license was issued. Originally a stag bar, a wall divided the ladies from the men. The wall had a window through which the bartender delivered the ladies’ beverages. They entered through a back door and could not see the men who stood by the bar, above the trough, “so they could spit or urinate,” Alice March explained.
We sat at a table where the stag wall had divided the room. The Knotty Pine’s menu is reasonably priced. A half pound cheeseburger or a turkey wrap is $6.50. Fries are $2.75; with gravy or cheese, add a dollar. Pan fried pork chops are $10; an open faced roast beef sandwich with gravy is $5.75. On Wednesdays and Fridays at 6 PM or Sundays at 2 PM steamed crabs are sold for $2 each while they are in season.
I ordered the crab cake for $11.50 and a house salad for $5. The crab cake was six ounces of tender, tasty crab meat with little filling. It was broiled and evenly crusted; good.
The house salad was large with romaine lettuce, tomato, green and red peppers, red onion and croutons served with shavings of parmesan cheese. I chose the creamy pepper parmesan dressing and the salad was hearty and satisfying. Thoroughly enjoyable.
Alice March has owned the Knotty Pine for twelve years. She was a social worker who helped “the homeless and families to get back on their feet.” March established a non-profit, Emergency Food Ministries. She has raised three daughters, Jennifer, Dana, Joy and a son, Kevin. The Marches sold their seven bedroom house in Catonsville to move into the second floor of the Knotty Pine.
“This is still a little like social work,” March said. “I empathize with my customers who have problems.” She added that she can tell the time of day by who walks through the Knotty Pine’s door.
Her biggest day of the year is St. Patrick’s Day. “I will serve 350 pounds of corned beef and 200 pounds of colcannon (mashed potatoes with cream, butter, cabbage, kale, spring onions).” March has been known to engage her customers in the chore of peeling and mashing the potatoes in preparation.
My companion ordered one of the evening’s specials, the Knotty Pine Chicken Panini for $8. The chicken breast was served on a bun with Gouda cheese, avocado, roasted red peppers and Chipotle mayonnaise. She declared the sandwich, “Superb! The avocado adds just the right touch and the mayo has a spicy kick to it.” The panini was served with French fries which were seasoned with Old Bay. “Perfect. The fries are hot and I like the Old Bay,” my companion said.
Alice March, who graduated from St. Benedict’s School and St. Michael’s Business School, is one of eight children. “That’s where I got the idea of being a social worker,” she explained, adding that she has studied at Goucher, Catonsville and the University of Maryland. “With seven siblings, I was always helping someone.”
When the fire destroyed the building, it was one of Alice March’s customers who recovered her mother’s china. She packed it up and stored it for March until the Knotty Pine opened again five months later.
“We celebrated the Knotty Pine’s rebirth on July 11th,” March said. For the 2009 Super Bowl, the Knotty Pine was selling, “the hottest ticket in town!”
Photos: Caryn Coyle