Venice Tavern, one of Highlandtown’s last basement bars, was born after Prohibition was repealed in 1933 when Mary Victoria and Frank DeSantis Sr. added a side stairwell to their corner house. The compact bar, located at South Conkling and Bank streets, started out serving shots, beers and spaghetti with meatballs.
Inside, a portrait of President Franklin Roosevelt, the patron saint of Depression-era tavern owners, still hangs over the dimly lit bar. Another hero honored in this classic dive bar is Vince DeSantis, a lightweight boxer who ran the tavern with his brother Frank DeSantis Jr. after their parents died. Ten years ago this month, Franksold the family watering hole to his grandson, Dominic DeSantis.
Frank , 82, recalls when Italian, Polish and German families dominated this rowhouse neighborhood. When Dominic took over, Venice Tavern was still a rough and rowdy joint for thirsty customers loyal to Bud, Pabst, and Miller High Life in cans.
Dominic saw that the neighborhood was changing, and brought in three-dollar craft beers to attract a younger crowd. Today the customers are young and old, white and black, with old school local characters blending in with hipsters, Latinos, and doctors and nurses from Johns Hopkins Hospital. Some of the longtime customers are even trying the craft beers.