There’s no standard recipe in any bartender’s handbook for achieving more than two centuries of success in the tavern business. Rather, success — like a good cocktail — probably has something to do with finding the perfect, but often intangible, mixture of several ingredients. Take some familiar standbys, add some new flavors, maybe toss in a shot or two of luck and stir into the tried-and-true base of good location, and you might come up with something like Shank’s Tavern in Marietta.
The riverside tavern on the corner of South Waterford and West Front streets, which is celebrating its 205th anniversary, has gone by many names since it got its start in 1814. First, it was the Compass and the Square, then it became the Hauer House and later it was Maulick’s (after a local brewer). It was even known for a time as “the Home of the East Coast Taco.”
Its present owner, 72-year-old Bob Shank, says he never wanted to be in the tavern business. After being stationed in California when he was in the U.S. Navy, Shank wanted to move back to Hollywood and become an actor.
“I was in a couple plays,” Shank says, “ ‘Music in the Night,’ ‘The Boyfriend,’ ‘Hello Dolly.’ ”
But Shank — who now lives in the house next to the tavern — agreed to move back in 1968 to his hometown of Marietta to help his mother with the family business — Shank’s Tavern. He eventually took over the tavern and has been running it ever since.
The tavern has been in the Shank family for decades and was originally purchased by Shank’s grandfather just before the end of Prohibition.
“He must have been nuts to buy (the tavern),” says Shank. “Everybody wants to own a tavern, until they actually own one. Then they see it’s no picnic. I’ve been through five floods.”
And yet, Shank obviously loves the bar and its history. He explains how the tavern continued to operate as a speakeasy during the time when booze was banned.
“When the revenuers would come to Marietta, (tavern owners) always knew it ahead of time, and they would take the booze over to the house (next door),” Shank says. “The revenuers would come in and give it a stamp and then leave. It wasn’t like Al Capone, when they’re coming in with machine guns and axes and cracking kegs of beer open.”
There are no real momentous historical events that happened at Shank’s during its long history. George Washington never held court at the bar. Abraham Lincoln didn’t stop in for a cold mug of ale after delivering the Gettysburg address.
But the tavern has always been a place for the people of Marietta. In the early days, canal hands working the boats running to Baltimore would visit the watering hole. Then, lumber men and thirsty pig iron workers after a long, hot shift at the furnaces and later, Armstrong employees. Today, lawyers share pints with bikers, and airport workers have shots with small business owners.
Shank’s is a Lancaster County landmark simply for its longevity. It remained open while history flowed through its doors like beer through the taps.
“At one time there were 19 bars in town and (Shank’s) wasn’t anything special (then), but what makes it special now is it survived that long,” says Shank as he looks at the historic photographs hanging on the walls around the bar and the tables. “There’s so much character in these walls. It’s like you’re going into a time machine.”
Shank’s Tavern has remained largely unchanged — a wall separating a ladies area from the main bar was knocked down in 1954, but the wainscoting, tile floor and fireplace are all original from more than 200 years ago.
Lady in black
And, yes, as with any good historic site, there are rumors of a spirit — a lady in black looking out the window, standing at the top of the stairs or hovering by the ladies room — that adds to the vibe of the tavern. Shank surmises it might be former owner Barb Hauer, who ran the tavern 1865-85.
“I think that’s an amazing feat for a woman to be running a bar back in that day,” Shank says. “It was a rough and tumble time in Marietta.”
Of course, there needs to be a string of amazing owners to keep a 205-year old bar going — and Shank and his team are the latest among them. Shank gives a lot of credit to his bar manager Tina Greider, of Wrightsville — a former writer for TV Guide — who also runs the tavern’s social media accounts and event planning.
“I call her the Red Tornado,” Shank says. “Because she comes flying around and doing everything. She actually had a lot to do with turning this place around.”
And Greider, for her part, gives all the credit to Shank and the rest of the staff.
“We have an amazing staff,” Greider says. “They’re part of a team and everybody cares — like a family.”
Marietta, along with the borough’s limitations, also play a role in the tavern’s success.
“Marietta is never going to grow,” Shank says. “You have the river, Chickie’s Rock and you have Armstrong and you have (Route) 441. So it’s never going to become commercialized like Lancaster (city). I think that’s what I like about Marietta. It has maintained its old town feel through all the years, because it can’t grow.”
But, there is also a secret ingredient to Shank’s success. It comes in the form of an import from Maryland: the feel of Fell’s Point in Baltimore. Shank has been soaking in the atmosphere of the historic cobblestone streets of the hip neighborhood on the Chesapeake Bay for years.
Greider mentions that Shank calls Marietta the “Fell’s Point of Central Pennsylvania,” because when you park your car, you can walk to six different bars.
“There are 25 Shank’s Taverns (in Fells Point),” Shank says. “I was going down there every weekend. I thought, ‘You have a Fell’s Point bar right here.’ ”
Shank took some mental notes and brought them back to Shank’s. The tavern already had the historical part down, but Shank added some new things to the menu. Like sushi. It may not seem like much now, but in Marietta in the ‘80s, sushi was unheard of.
“There were a couple bars (in Fell’s Point) that had sushi. Somebody said, ‘You ought to try that in Marietta.’ And I said, ‘You gotta be kidding me. Nobody will go for that.’ But the more I saw that it was growing in popularity down there — and since nobody had it up here yet — we started having it on Friday nights.”
It wasn’t the first time Shank had introduced the area to unfamiliar foods. In the late 1960s, Shank added a favorite food of his from his Navy days in California.
“We were eating tacos,” Shank says. “And nobody (in Marietta) heard of a taco. So I started Taco Night in ’68. We had had T-shirts that said ‘Shank’s Tavern: Home of the East Coast Taco.’ People loved it.”
Shank continues to be on the forefront of local food trends. More than a decade ago, he added a Pho night. And once again, the historic bar was ahead of the times here in Lancaster County.
The same thing goes for the beer. Shank and his wife were into homebrewing during the first craft beer wave (that’s right, millennials, craft beer was “a thing” in the ’90s). Since then, the bar has maintained taps dedicated to domestic staples as well as trendy craft beers.
Whatever the reason for the tavern’s continued success through wars, the Depression, Prohibition and some lean years — whether it’s the people, the history, the location, the drinks or the food — one intangible remains true of Shank’s: the good vibe.
“So many good times here,” Shank says