Bar review: Despite new owners, Swallow at the Hollow feels tired
Old school corner bar needs more of an effort
Swallow at the Hollow has been under new management since February, 2011. Bar tender Jeff O'Rourke, left, talks with customer Michael McGill, of Baltimore, at the bar. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / January 24, 2012)
The bar/restaurant has been a holdout in Belvedere-Govans since the 1940s, when it was called the Hollow Bar and Grill. Little changed at the corner bar over the years, which prided itself on its modesty and approachability. Until last year, the interior still looked "very '70s," says Aaron Reinhart, a longtime customer.
He bought it in February 2011 with the goal of refurbishing the old bar. He's succeeded in some respects: The restaurant does have a fresh coat of paint; there's even a new electronic jukebox.
But Reinhart has not transformed the bar, as you'd want from new management. It still looks old-fashioned, like a movie theater that hasn't adopted digital projectors. It looks stale — not just next to some of the brand new bars in nearby Belvedere Square, but when it's more charitably compared to other veteran bars that have been taken up by new owners.
Despite the jukebox and three new flat-screens, Swallow looks homely, like it's just been glossed over rather than truly updated. At Holy Frijoles, lots of Christmas lights made the bar pop; here the owners have hung a sad, single strand of raspberry Christmas lights around the room. The walls are a boring beige.
Even the menu has not been updated — I was surprised to see Schlitz, a beloved old beer brand that hasn't been widely available for years, listed on tap. But my server and a bartender told the laminated menu was just out of date.
It's not like the current beer selection, listed on a chalkboard, was all that impressive. There are just seven drafts — including two craft beers, Fat Tire and Yards IPA, which cost $4.75 – and 45 brands by the bottle, including Schmidt's and Sierra Nevada. All beers are under $5.
The menu and beer might have been overlooked had my server — I sat in the dining area, as well as the bar — knew its most current version. But he was lethargic and unfamiliar with the beer offerings; he didn't even know what Schlitz was. He mostly stayed at his station counting his tips, so I finally had to get up and pay at the bar.
The bar's direction is disheartening to report, because Swallow's seniority means it's remembered fondly by many people. Mention it at your workplace like I did, and longtime Baltimoreans will start reminiscing unsolicited.
The Swallow was never a landmark institution that fell into disrepair, like, say, the Senator. It was appreciated for its dinner specials and family-friendliness by parishioners at St. Pius Church and mature neighbors; guests would bring their kids. Jerry's Belvedere Tavern was more appreciated by the college students, though Swallow had its share from Loyola College.
Swallow continues to be approachable. The owners have spruced up the joint with new hardwood floors and brand-new light fixtures. Their look, though, is still mostly ordinary — stack chairs dominate the small dining room, beer ads for Natty Boh and Miller Light hang above the bar, vintage illustrations pass for decor.
The already modestly-sized bar/restaurant is divided by a counter into a snug dining room — just one group table, plus several for couples — and a bar proper outfitted with a handful of stools.
The menu, the server, the stubbornly retro decor all suggested a lack of effort, imagination, and personality. At Jigg's, another veteran bar that's been under new management recently, the jukebox is at least stocked with obscure and new R&B. The service is wildly enthusiastic, so much that you'll sometimes see the owner take part in karaoke night. Every time I've been, it looks and feels vibrant. There are no TVs anywhere, and they're unnecessary because the conversation is loud and upbeat.
Swallow doesn't need to compete with the bars in Belvedere Square, but it does need to make an effort to step into 2012.
For starters, update the menu, ditch the comatose wait staff and hire someone who understands service. Swallow should freshen up those colors and get a real jukebox, but also embrace its history and add more of those vintage illustrations. In short, it should look like it's trying.
Swallow at the Hollow
Back story: Isabel Abell and her husband William ran what was then known as the Hollow Bar and Grill starting in the '40s. Her family had been in the bar business in the Oldtown section of Baltimore for years before that. After they sold the business in the 1950s, the bar became a destination for neighbors in Rodgers Forge, Stoneleigh, Towson, and sometimes Loyola College students. Aaron Reinhart took it over in February.
Parking: Street, metered parking is available all over York Road; there's also free parking at the lot by Belvedere Square.
Signature drink: Swallow has an unambitious beer selection; try one of the craft beers on rotation, like Philadelphia's Yards ($4.25). All beers are under $5; domestics are $2.75. During happy hour — 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. — Natty Bohs are $1.75, domestics $2.25, and imports and craft beers are $3.50. The food menu ranges in price from $3.25 (tater tots) to $15.95 (fried fish platter).
Open: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-midnight Sunday-Monday
Where: 5921 York Road, Baltimore