“When the House of Welsh was torn down in December 2011, it hadn’t been the House of Welsh for 13 years. Yet it was hard to pass the building at the corner of Guilford and Saratoga that was home to a nightclub for the last years of its life and not think of the steakhouse and tavern that had lived there for 98 years prior. The House of Welsh survived the Great Fire, the integration of African-American clientele in its dining room and women in its stag bar, as well as a host of mediocre dining reviews. It may not have been the best place to have a meal in Baltimore, but few could challenge its claim that it was “Baltimore’s Oldest Eating Establishment.”
The business at 301 Guilford Ave. began its life as a liquor store in 1838. By the time Irish immigrant Martin Welsh opened The Black Bottle in 1900 (it later became known as the House of Welsh), the address had swallowed up two additional buildings to become a cluster of three 19th-century structures melded into one. In the 1940s, the Saratoga Street side of the brick building was painted black and sported advertisements for Welsh’s Black Bottle, a rye produced in Maryland, along with renderings of cocktails, dinner plates and all manner of text touting the restaurant’s steaks, chops and seafood. (This was before the building was wrapped in Formstone). A taproom, described by The Sun as a bar for “quick snort, blue-collared patronage,” was open to men only and lacked bar stools or seating of any kind. Three knotty pine-clad, low-ceilinged dining rooms decorated with photos of old Baltimore made up the restaurant portion of the establishment. For a short time Welsh’s family lived in an apartment above the restaurant, and until it closed, a member of the Welsh family ran the business.
Throughout its history, the House of Welsh made the news, from the time in 1964 when the business’ liquor license was suspended for three days after the bartender shot a patron who threw a glass of beer at him, to 1993, when a visiting Ross Perot waxed nostalgic about post-football game dinners at the restaurant while he was a student at the Naval Academy. But the restaurant’s greatest fame came early in its life, when for three days during the Great Fire of 1904, The Associated Press filed stories from the restaurant’s third floor, courtesy of wires rigged up to the building. The makeshift office was Baltimore’s only wire connection to the rest of the country. Later, the restaurant was known as a hangout for Sun reporters and denizens of nearby City Hall. The upstairs dining room, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer told The Sun in 1998, was a place where bills and budgets were hammered out by City Council members in the 1950s and ’60s.
But despite newspaper ads that touted Blue Ribbon sirloin steaks, two vegetables and a martini or a Manhattan for $1.50 (in the 1940s, at least) and welcomed Colts fans in the ’50s for post-game meals, the House of Welsh was never beloved for its food. Its sizzling steaks, served on wood and metal platters, its onion rings and hot rolls, were never first rate. In a 1980 review, longtime Sun dining critic Elizabeth Large characterized the place as “a little rundown, a little seedy” and gave a nod to a “perfectly decent T-bone,” but not the green beans that “were cooked long enough to look canned although they tasted frozen” or a stuffed baked potato spiced with celery seed, pimento and chives, reminiscent of clams casino.
A few years earlier, in ending his abysmal review of the restaurant, The Sun’s John Dorsey indulged in a bit of nostalgia. “I’m a sucker for any place that’s managed to stick around as long as Welsh’s has, whatever the quality,” he wrote. “It’s bad, heaven knows, and one can wish it would get better; but I can’t help thinking it’s better to have it the way it is than not to have it at all.”