New restaurants in Baltimore, like in every city, come and go with lightning speed. Today’s hot spot becomes tomorrow’s “huh?” before you even get there to see what the fuss was about.
We decided to step back from the buzz and reach into the bowels (er, stomachs) of Charm City’s culinary history to see where and what Baltimoreans have been eating nigh these many years. In the late 19th and early 20th century, many of the most popular restaurants were owned by Germans and served typical German fare. People craved sauerbraten and calf’s head and hasenpfeffer, which makes sense when you consider the preponderance of German immigrants in the city at the time.
The other early trend in Baltimore restaurants was a proud, almost defiant, regionalism. In the fancy dining rooms of the city’s grand hotels, waiters served Maryland diamondback terrapin and canvasback duck, Maryland oysters and oyster pie, Eastern shore chicken and, of course, Chesapeake Bay crabs. After visiting Charm City, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once called Baltimore “the gastronomic metropolis of the Union.”
The Great Fire of 1904 put many of the original Baltimore haunts out of business. Of those that survived that conflagration, some didn’t survive Prohibition. As H.L. Mencken, quite a man with a knife and fork, once commented, “Certainly it is hard to imagine terrapin a la Maryland without either sherry or Madeira, wild duck without Burgundy, or crabs and oysters without beer.” Indeed.
The story goes on, through the arrival of cafeterias and quick-lunches and the introduction of new ethnic restaurants (exit the Germans; enter Indian, Chinese, Korean and more). And also through the rise and fall of a dozen fine restaurants that seemed like they’d last forever- The Chesapeake, Schellhase’s, Haussner’s- and still haunt the city.
Fifty or 100 years from now, which restaurants will remain from our day? Which ones will still be remembered? It’s anyone’s guess. For now, take a look back.
Thompson’s Sea Girt House
Before the upmarket townhouses and restaurants, even before the industrial buildings, lower Canton- Newkirk Street where it meets the water- was almost pastoral. George Thompson Jr., owner of Thompson’s Sea Girt House, used to stand at the edge of the 450-foot pier off his restaurant and shoot a half-dozen ducks each morning over the Patapsco. The Sea Girt House, a one-time hotel that Thompson acquired in 1890, was a Canton mainstay even after the marine trade moved in. The restaurant was known for its fried chicken, jumbo soft crabs and rockfish dinners that came with french fries, salad and hot muffins for 60 cents a plate. Passengers aboard open-air streetcars en route to River View Park, a popular amusement spot down the road from the restaurant, would shout out reservations to be kept on their return from the park. Others tied up their boats at the pier. During the harsh winter of 1917-18, the harbor froze, stranding several Scandinavian ships in front of the Sea Girt House for months. The seamen amused themselves with ice skating and ice boating, as hundreds of Baltimoreans watched from shore. After the competitions, everyone adjourned to the Sea Girt bar. The restaurant, which reportedly served a mean mint julep, changed hands several times before it was demolished in the winter of 1949 to make way for a marine terminal. It was later reincarnated near Belvedere Square, but no duck hunting ever took place nearby.
The Rennert Hotel
In 1885, Robert Rennert relocated his hotel from Fayette Street to the southeast corner of Saratoga, Cathedral and Liberty streets. A favorite of the Tammany Hall leaders from New York, as well as local dignitaries, the hotel had its biggest week in 1912, when the Democratic National Convention was held in the 5th Regiment Armory. In his rookie days, H.L. Mencken was sent to report on the banquets held nearly nightly at the Rennert. As a more seasoned reporter, he took to lunching there daily, figuring he’d eaten 3,000 meals there before the hotel closed in 1939. “I can recall but two [meals] that were downright bad. Of the rest,” he said, “many were magnificent, and not a few were sublime.” The raw bar featured 13 oysters to the dozen, and the hotel’s several restaurants featured deep dish oyster pie, toasted soft shell crabs and “above all, diamondback terrapins and canvasback ducks.” The Rennert proudly served regional cuisine. As Mencken said, “There were no a la’s on the bill of fare.” The hotel was never able to recover from the dry spell of Prohibition and was torn down in 1941.
Dunlop’s Oyster House
Louisa and James Dunlop opened their namesake restaurant in 1886, but it was their niece Anna Mohrman who toiled there for 53 years until its close in 1955. The Howard Street landmark served more than 100,000 fried oysters a year- and Mohrman, who married one of her customers in 1918, reportedly never ate a single one. At the turn
of the century, diners could get 72 “choice” fried oysters for $1. A quart of shucked oysters went for 35 cents. Butlers from the mansions along Park, St. Paul and Charles streets stopped by after they had done their marketing to pick up a batch of fried beauties for their employers. Upon its close, Mohrman explained to The Evening Sun why she refused to sell the restaurant to anyone else: “Handling [oysters] is an art. I wouldn’t want my place to get into the hands of anybody who didn’t understand our kind of business. I’d rather close it and let my customers remember me with a sweet taste in their mouths.”
Known simply as “the place to eat,” Miller Brothers Fayette Street Seafood opened in 1913 and became the regular haunt of the Round Table, a luncheon club of Democratic pols and their friends (males, that is), as well as countless others- the restaurant could seat 450 on its first floor. Following the Anschluss in 1938, chef Paul Pantzer evermore wore a black toque (in honor of the collapse of independent Austria) while creating the restaurant’s signature whale steak and green sea turtle soup. Elk was also a customer favorite, and when a freshly killed one arrived, the restaurant would display it on Fayette Street before butchering it, which always drew a crowd.
In 1962, Leonard Bernstein stomped out of Miller Brothers after the restaurant refused to serve a black member of his party. Not long afterward, three “African diplomats” from the new republic of Gabon (actually three black reporters from the Baltimore Afro-American dressed in costumes rented from A.T. Jones) entered the restaurant. Then-Gov. Millard Tawes had requested that Maryland restaurants serve foreign dignitaries (Africans included), even though most wouldn’t serve African-Americans, and the three “diplomats” were thus given service. When the trick- and the irony of the policy of serving foreigners but not natives- was revealed, Miller Brothers earned a spate of publicity (but not the kind it would necessarily have asked for). By 1963, the restaurant had closed, torn down to make way for construction of the new Charles Center. The new Hilton hotel (now the Omni) that went up on the spot briefly resurrected the name “Miller Bros.” for its swank dining room in the late ‘60s.
Even with the spectre of current owner Peter Angelos moving it to Charles Street, Marconi’s hangs on, seemingly caught in a perpetual time warp where a gin-and-tonic is appropriate any hour of the day and cream sauces and overly buttered vegetables have no effect upon waistlines or arteries. Open since 1920, Marconi’s remains the city’s oldest continuously operated restaurant. It’s a culinary tie to Baltimore’s grand past, a living historical reference to the days of H.L. Mencken, Upton Sinclair and Rudolph Valentino, who may or may not have bused tables at the restaurant. Want to see how they ate during the Jazz Age? No need to research the cookbooks- just go to 106 W. Saratoga St. and order the lobster Cardinal or the sweetbreads. There’s something comforting about Marconi’s longevity, like an old leather chair or a well-read book. Long may its cooking clog our arteries and expand our waistlines.
Just because they were self-service doesn’t mean they were dowdy. All four locations of the Oriole Cafeteria, which opened in 1922 as the city’s first cafeteria, offered diners a “spotless tablecloth and a clean napkin”- and at one location, the Jack Lederer orchestra provided live entertainment. Though offering simple fare ranging from bean soup to chicken pie to lamb pie with biscuit, the Oriole fancied itself more gourmet. As a 1947 brochure proclaimed, “If you are one of those faithful followers of old Epicurius, choose an Oriole Cafeteria for a bite to eat, for here you will find platoons of food that coax the cynical gastronome to a nimble tongue of praise.” In 1927, the location at 22 Light St. served 3,000 meals a day, seven days a week. By 1975, however, all the locations had closed.
Otto Schellhase opened his restaurant at 302 W. Franklin St. on April Fools’ Day, 1924, but it was certainly not a foolish act. Within nine years, the restaurant relocated to 412 N. Howard St., in the heart of the theater district, and had become a late night hangout for theater types and all kinds of notables who feasted on hearty Germanic fare like knockwurst, boiled beef with horseradish sauce and pig’s knuckle. In 1931, Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullivan had their wedding reception on the second floor (they were both appearing in a production in town). Most notably, H.L. Mencken and his Saturday Night Club patronized the back room at Schellhase’s until the club’s dissolution in 1950. Despite the decline of the surrounding area, Schellhase’s hung on until 1980 before closing.
It was the prototypical Baltimore seafood restaurant. Unpolished in both its cooking and its décor, it nevertheless attracted a regular crowd of locals and tourists. As John Dorsey of The Sun wrote in the restaurant’s twilight years: Connolly’s is “ugly, loud, charmless and uncomfortable, the food is apt to be atrocious and everybody- absolutely everybody from the mayor on down- goes there.” Indeed, William Donald Schaefer dined there with his mother every Sunday night and every Tuesday he enjoyed “ham and cabbage night.” When redevelopment hit the Inner Harbor in the 1970s, the mayor took the impending threat to Connolly’s personally: “All new restaurants seemingly will be in the high-income bracket and services for a lower- or middle-class income clientele will be overlooked. They’re [Inner Harbor management] going to have to answer to me for Connolly’s.”
Thomas Connolly founded the restaurant at Pier 5 in 1925 and made weekly trips to Crisfield and St. Michaels for oysters and watermelons aboard his William J. Brennan, the last oyster boat to be docked in the Inner Harbor when it finally gave up the ship in the late 1950s. From 1975 through much of the 1980s, second owners Naomi and Sterling Connolly ran the restaurant in a perpetual state of uncertainty, existing off a series of 30-day leases. The lease finally ran out on Connolly’s for good when it was demolished to make way for the Columbus Center in the early ‘90s.
Has it already been five years since Haussner’s served its last slice of strawberry pie? When what might have been Baltimore’s most famous restaurant- or surely its most unique- closed in 1999, faithful patrons flocked from London to Arizona to eat sauerbraten and hasenpfeffer among the restaurant’s famous art collection one last time. That art collection fetched $11 million at Sotheby’s and the famous ball of string more than $8,000 at a local auction.
Owner William Haussner was an infamous stickler when it came to service: rolls were not to be called “buns,” single diners were always seated immediately- even if there was a line- and every meal was to be plated with a parsley garnish. As the story goes, when Haussner’s diabetes finally took his sight, waitresses would sit him down at a table so he could run his hand over the white tablecloths to check their smoothness. He died in 1963, leaving the restaurant to his wife, Frances.
You could find nearly anything on Haussner’s menu, of course: picked beef aged in vinegar and wine in wooden casks, diamondback terrapin, pig’s knuckles, not to mention kangaroo and whale. “It’s of the type that used to be called Ôcontinental,’” displaced Baltimorean Stephen Hunter wrote in The Washington Post, describing Haussner’s food. “It flies from the fork to your arteries like a bat, leaking an oil slick of pure calories and enough cholesterol to kill your heart in a second.”
On its last day in business, Sept. 21, 1999, hundreds of patrons waited for a table in the cold rain. There were two people in wheelchairs, one pulling an oxygen tank and another whom brought an IV drip that waitresses attached to a coat rack at his table. “We’re not pretentious,” daughter Francie Haussner said in an interview during the restaurant’s final week. “Nouvelle cuisine passed right over Highlandtown.”
The Chesapeake Restaurant
Now there’s only a big question at 1701 N. Charles St.: When will something
move into that prime space? But from the 1950s through the 1970s, The Chesapeake Restaurant thrived there- so much so that it was impossible to get a table on a Saturday night without a reservation- under the motto, “Cut your steak with a fork, else tear up your check and walk out.” Legend has it that in 1936 owner Sidney Friedman rode the train from Chicago to Baltimore carrying a charcoal broiler on his lap, thus facilitating the city’s first taste of tender, grilled steak.
According to a 1994 Sun article by Gil Sandler, The Chesapeake also introduced Charm City to Caesar salad, as well as featuring lobster seven days a week, live jazz, a unique ambience and, of course, the popular coconut snowball dessert. As described by Philip Friedman, who bought the restaurant from brother Sidney in 1976, it was “two huge scoops of vanilla ice cream drowned in a fudge sauce É then smothered with fresh- I mean fresh- coconut!” After the Friedmans sold out in 1986, other owners tried to revive The Chesapeake. But it closed for good in 1987.
The Pimlico Hotel
Yes, the Pimlico Hotel really was once a hotel. And it was even located at Pimlico Race course. Built in 1875, the original structure stood on the racetrack’s infield and accommodated jockeys and others affiliated with the course. The building was moved to the 5300 block of Park Heights Ave. around the turn of the century during a track expansion and continued to host racetrack workers throughout the Prohibition, when federal officials frequently raided the hotel. When Leon Shavitz and then-partner Nathan Herr (of Nate’s & Leon’s fame) bought it in 1951, they completely renovated the dilapidated building, and constructed several additions but kept its legendary name. The restaurant was known as much for Shavitz’s warm hospitality as its 14-page menu. The Pimlico moved to Reisterstown Road in 1981 and served its last T-bone 10 years later.
For years there was only one place in Baltimore to get real Russian caviar and a $240 bottle of 1949 Lafite Rothschild. That place was Danny’s. Opened in 1961 at the corner of Charles and Biddle by Danny Dickman, who toiled as a child in his parents’ East Baltimore luncheonette, Danny’s tagline was “cuisine for the connoisseur.” And indeed it was in a city accustomed to crab imperial and chicken Chesapeake. Dickman’s goal was to “upgrade the region’s taste in food” and he did that by insisting on impeccable service and offering the freshest possible ingredients, like the Scottish salmon and Dover sole he flew in twice a week. His Caesar salad was a production in itself: made tableside with a flourish of greens, raw eggs, croutons and olive oil. Danny’s earned the city’s only four-star rating from Mobil, prompting gourmands from D.C. and New York to deem its cuisine on par with the finest restaurants back home. When Danny’s finally closed after more than 25 years, it had long been living on borrowed time: few in town could afford Dickman’s culinary ideals.
DINING OUT THROUGH THE DECADES
1778 Baltimore’s first restaurant, William Stinson’s, opens at Market (now Baltimore) and South streets.
1814 After torching the White House, British Gen. Robert Ross leads 5,000 troops north. “I’ll dine tonight in Baltimore- or in hell,” he is quoted as saying. Gen. Ross doesn’t dine in Baltimore.
1842 On his tour of the United States, Charles Dickens praises Baltimore’s cuisine above all others. Reportedly, he also sips his first mint julep here.
1869 Barnum’s Hotel at the corner of Calvert and Fayette (dubbed the best hotel in the United States by Charles Dickens) holds a dinner for 17th U.S. President Andrew Johnson that features 90 items of Maryland cuisine, from elk to turtle.
1887 The Women’s Industrial Exchange moves to its current location after being started by Civil War widows in 1880 “for the purpose of endeavoring by sympathy and practical aid to encourage and help needy women to help themselves by procuring for them and establishing a sales room for the sale of Women’s Work.” Chicken salad appears on the tearoom’s menu some years later.
1904 At 2 a.m. on Feb. 8, 35 Western Union telegraph operators start tapping out news of the Great Baltimore Fire from the House of Welsh restaurant, on whose corner of Guilford and Saratoga the last remaining telegraph pole that carried lines in every direction stood. For three days, the operators send out news from the restaurant.
1921 Polock Johnny’s is founded on The Block. Blaze Starr regularly stops by for a hot dog.
1927 The Emerson Hotel fetes Charles Lindbergh with a grand dinner after he completes the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
1934 Velleggia’s opens in Little Italy, providing a taste of home to Italian immigrants-and eventually tourists. Along with Marconi’s (see story), it remains one of Baltimore’s longest-running restaurants.
1934 Maria’s restaurant in Little Italy opens. Maria Allori’s cooking remains a city favorite until her passing in 1974. Flocks of visiting celebrities dine on her Veal Maria and Sweetbreads Maria, including Gene Autry, who ties up his horse outside.
1936 F. Scott Fitzgerald checks into Room 409 at the Stafford Hotel and runs up a heady $22.35 bill at the hotel’s bar and restaurant.
1943 The Office of Price Administration orders prices on Maryland food and drink frozen because they are approaching “a point where they would threaten the Government’s program to hold the line on living costs.” Prices continued their upward climb after the war.
1944 The true size of a crab is better judged by weight than by length, a fact Ed Obrycki takes seriously at his new namesake restaurant. Obrycki reportedly weighs each crab by hand, ensuring that each customer gets his or her money’s worth.
1946 Jimmy Wu’s New China Inn opens at 2430 N. Charles St. Known for his charm as much as his Cantonese cuisine, Wu gives his dining rooms quirky names like The Longevity Room, Cheat-Chat and Forbidden Quarters. “It’s the end of an era,” he tells Sun food critic Elizabeth Large when the New China Inn closes in 1983. “The end of the Wu Dynasty.”
1959 One foodie remarks to The Evening Sun that “you stand as much chance of finding a French restaurant in Baltimore as one serving Maryland diamondback terrapin in Paris.”
1964 The Circle One, the only revolving restaurant on the East Coast, opens atop the Holiday Inn Downtown on Lombard and Howard streets. Diners get a panoramic view of the skyline as the restaurant makes a complete revolution each hour. Apparently, not enough customers go along for the ride; the restaurant closes in 1974.
1968 Pedro Sanz and Jesus Perez open Tio Pepe’s and Baltimoreans celebrate birthdays and anniversaries over authentic Spanish roast pork and paella, (except for a brief hiatus in the mid-1990s when the restaurant is shut down for health code violations). Another brouhaha erupts in 1981 when an Orthodox Jew is denied service for wearing a baseball cap, a violation of the dress code. What an Orthodox Jew is doing eating in a very non-kosher restaurant prompts a whirlwind of letters in The Sun .
1969 Theodosis Kohilas opens Ikaros on Eastern Avenue. The restaurant holds seven tables. At night, Kohilas brings samples of dolomades and baklava to area hospitals and colleges in hopes of introducing locals to Greek cuisine. Today, Ikaros accommodates 180 people.
1974 A survey performed by Consumer Health officials of 1,000 city and county restaurants reveals that more than 50 percent store food unsanitarily on the floor, 45 percent store poisons in an unsafe manner and 19 percent have flies, roaches and other vermin present.
1974 The dowdy Oyster Bay restaurant closes after serving Maryland seafood since 1946. (Another incarnation opens next to the Mechanic Theatre in 1982.) Many of its waitresses are in their 60s and previously worked at longtime Baltimore favorite Miller Brothers. “Nobody wants to come downtown anymore,” waitress Liz Pullias laments in an interview in The Sun. “I wouldn’t want to come downtown.” Six weeks later, Oyster Bay’s impressive 9-foot mounted marlin fetches $180 at auction.
1976 The Nobska, a historic paddlewheel ferry that transported thousands of passengers around New England waters for more than 50 years, opens at the Inner Harbor. Health inspectors shut it down on opening night. The following year, two masked bandits hold up the manager and three staff members at gunpoint in front of 200 diners. The restaurant sails off into the sunset in 1978.
1976 Our Father’s Place, Baltimore’s first- and one of the only- “Christian delis” nationwide, opens in Charles Village, promising its sandwiches will be “made with love and a prayer.”
1980 Phillips opens at the Inner Harbor after successfully dishing out bay bounty at its Ocean City location since 1957. Today, most of the crabmeat for Phillips’ 187,000 crab cakes served yearly comes from Asia.
1981 Baltimore gets its first sushi bar at the Japanese restaurant Shogun, in the 2100 block of N. Charles St. Master chef Shuzuo “Nono-san” Nonouchi and his wife, Kazuko, move the sharp knives to 316 N. Charles St. two years later, where it still serves some of Baltimore’s freshest raw fish.
1981 The Conservatory, atop the Peabody Court Hotel, serves up the best view of Mount Vernon. Michel Richard’s Citronelle replaces the restaurant in the early 1990s as it becomes home- albeit briefly- to one of the country’s most famous chefs.
1982 Morgan Millard owner Diane Blair fires 60 employees, including her entire wait and bus staff citing “slow service and negative attitude.” However, all are urged to reapply for their positions. Blair rehires everyone but six. Asked why she just didn’t fire the six, Blair responds, “We wanted to impress the entire staff.”
1985 West Baltimore’s Sess’s Restaurant at 1639 Division St. serves its last helping of smothered pork chops, waffles and kidneys. William Sessoms had opened the restaurant in 1941, a block off Pennsylvania Avenue, and counted entertainers like Count Basie, Duke Ellington and boxer Joe Louis among his regular clientele. Located across the street from Thurgood Marshall’s childhood home, Sess’s served as the unofficial meeting place for the city’s highest-ranking black politicians for years.
1992 Former Sunpapers art director Donna Crivello opens the first Donna’s café in Mount Vernon. In a city starved for good coffee, Donna’s becomes Charm City’s equivalent to Starbucks, opening seven outlets in the area. With the collapse of Bibelot Books, the number of Donna’s shrinks to six.
2001 Tapas Teatro, Baltimore’s first tapas restaurant, opens in the revitalized 2100 block of N. Charles St. Diners wait in long lines, just like they used to at the old Chesapeake Restaurant next door.