Melanie’s at Griffith’s Tavern doesn’t claim to be any better than other bars in its Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore. But, perhaps, that is because it expects patrons to walk in with the same attitude.
This is thanks to its new owners, Hannah Spangler and Allison Crowley, who bought and partially renamed the place two months ago.
Before their purchase, Griffith’s Tavern was a neighborhood dive bar for nearly 100 years, catering primarily to straight men.
It was a space where guys could sip on cheap canned beers while the bar’s previous owner Rick Koehler ensured all of his customers had enough ice. The neighborhood knew him, and he knew them. Koehler and his grandfather had operated the venue since 1976.
Most of their previous crowd included the children and grandchildren of Griffith Tavern’s original regulars, extending as far back as the founder Buck Griffith. He lived during prohibition and sold ice; he continued selling ice even after turning his business into a tavern in 1934.
The “stag bar” was accused of excluding women throughout its history, among other conservative mentalities, but Koehler had told press outlets the bar was willing to serve women when he began operating it. He even added a lock to the only bathroom on the premises.
However, some of those same regulars have taken issue with the bar’s new queer female ownership and stopped going altogether. Other patrons expressed more excitement to see how they reimagined the place but stopped frequenting.
Spangler tells GayCities she’s not worried about losing the business of former patrons because Melanie’s at Griffith’s Tavern attracted new loyal customers.
“It’s not not a gay bar,” says Spangler, who identifies as bisexual; she just prefers to use queer as a description to include the bar’s entire newfound community of supporters. Her partner Allison identifies as a lesbian. Spangler emphasizes it is still a space where you come, enjoy an inexpensive drink, and meet up with some of your neighbors. Her intention was never to replace Griffith’s Tavern. “But we brought ourselves to it.”
In fact, not much of the original design has changed.
Inside, a purple “Melanie’s” neon sign sits on top of a yellow “Griffith’s Tavern,” embodying how they don’t seek to destroy but build on the neighborhood landmark. “Sort of what we talked about is how places we’ve loved are so different now,” reflects Spangler on their brainstorming for what its future looked like. “It’s ok to become different, you have to grow, and you have to change. But to wash over what was important to a lot of people, I think, is a little rude, so we wanted to maintain some of what it used to be and acknowledge the space for what it was, in keeping with the way we are.”
And it was not in their nature to exclude, so Crowley and Spangler assured Griffith’s previous patrons it was still for them but invited the rest of the neighborhood who had never felt welcomed to come in for a drink.
Spangler says they redid the floors and put a fresh coat of paint. Gamblers might be disappointed that they replaced the slot machine with Pacman. Despite the few changes to the physicality of the space, she says a lot of the older elderly crowd still does not want to come in anymore. “There’s a mentality that comes with that. Some are still excited to see what it has become, and some are very upset with what we’ve done.”
It’s never easy relaunching a controversial bar in a post-covid hospitality era, but Spangler adds their gender and sex presented problems of prejudice in the hospitality industry. “It’s hard to get anything through the city. Allison and I would have to explain to them that, yes, we are women, but we do know what we’re talking about.” Spangler herself has ten years of experience in hospitality, and both owners grew up hanging out in bars.
“Allison and I were interested enough to bring him [Koehler] all the cash we have in the world. We said this is what we have, and we’ll take care of it as best we could. And he said yes.”
She only has one rule for any local or tourist interested in coming down to Melanie’s at Griffith’s Tavern: “Don’t be a dick. You can come here as long as you’re not gonna be an asshole. I don’t care what you are, who you do or don’t love. If you can sit here and enjoy a rum and coke, you can come in.” She says you can’t if you come here with anything but that attitude.
Entering, you might catch Spangler watering the plant or restocking the ice. She greets and welcomes you to sit while still going along with her business as if you were a friend. She asks what you want to drink while simultaneously responding to a question from a man and woman sitting next to you.
You ask about the selection of canned beers and carbonated drinks on display in the glassed fridge, of which there appears like 30 variations. Spangler retrieves one of her personal picks and suggests mixing it with orange juice. It tastes delicious.
The owner of Frazier’s, another neighborhood pub, enjoys a beer by himself.
A man hollers for one of the bags of chips from the different variations that the bar offers hanging on the walls. It remains the only food the venue sells, but Spangler welcomes hungry patrons to bring in takeout from neighboring restaurants.
Three men laugh in the distance. One of them is cute and doesn’t act afraid to make eye contact with other men. His gaze momentarily distracts you from the fact that Spangler is once again standing in front of you. She asks if you want more ice.