No one would have named a pub Penny Black in 1840, when it was first built to offer lodging, food, and drink to sailors and dock workers in Baltimore’s Fells Point. Memories of the British invasion during the War of 1812 embittered the residents of the time toward anything smacking of the British, even though Thames Street, Fleet Street, Bond Street, Pratt, and so on attest to the area’s English heritage. Subtle resistance exists even now, though. Baltimoreans do not say “Tims” Street; they insist on pronouncing the TH and say the word with a long A.
Penny Black was the first adhesive stamp to be issued, created in 1840 in England. Charles Doering, a stamp collector, has owned the pub with his wife, Melissa, since 1976. In addition, their daughter and son, Eliza and John Doering, have a band called Eliza Doering and the Penny Black. After 200 years, the name evokes Old World charm, as does the interior of the tavern at 1800 Thames Street.
The building has hosted travelers and the just plain thirsty under several identities over the years. Norwegian seamen slept in it as The Holmes Hotel. Later, it became Zeppi’s 5-Point Tavern. In 1976 it became John Steven Ltd. (named for a Teddy Bear) under the Doering family’s ownership and enjoyed such a strong reputation that when its doors closed because of a lessee’s poor management, many in the neighborhood began to clamor for its reopening. “John Steven is a Fell’s Point icon,” they complained. The Doerings decided to reopen it, and, watching, waiting, eager, and I suppose nosey, John and I stopped by often while they were refurbishing. At last, ready for business, they gave it a new name for its new start. Once again, the corner of Thames and South Ann Street is lively, popular, and serving delicious fare that goes way beyond most bar food.
We feel good just walking in the door. The atmosphere, polished and cozy in the old style, upbeat and friendly, pulls us in, as do the stories Charles and Melissa Doering tell about the history of the place. The mahogany bar, they said, came from a German ocean liner decommissioned in Fell’s Point and was installed in 1910. The man behind the bar, Jeff Bejma, is a magician with drinks and a great storyteller in his own right. He possesses a deep knowledge of spirits: their origins and properties and just how they might be manipulated for a patron’s pleasurable drinking experience. I love a person with a passion for his or her craft. Sometimes his rises to the standard of art.
Penny Black will continue to grow. A beautiful dining room with a fireplace gave us comfort and the feel of a special occasion one stormy night when our family gathered there and shifted in from the patio. The breeze and aroma of rain through the window, the candles on dark wooden tables, great food for all tastes, and servers and proprietors who treated us like close friends—it was perfect. Upstairs, on the second floor, the Doerings are preparing a music lounge. The family occupies parts of the second and third floors, where there are ten rooms and from which, I imagine, one can see the harbor as well as all the activity along Thames Street.
We’ll be sad to say good-bye to Charles, Melissa, Eliza, John, and bar master Jeff, as well as to Chef Amos Estes, who continues to develop a menu featuring thoughtfully prepared offerings. Imagine an appetizer plate of tasty escargots, scallops in ratatouille, velvet-on-the-tongue gnocchi, the best burger anywhere, mussels that will make you sing, and more. Melissa’s poppyseed cake with Chef’s caramel sauce is big enough to share, but might cause a feud: best to have my own piece.
Penny Black has been a good place to drop in for a light—or sometimes not so light—supper. Everyone should know their name.