Nostalgic Baltimore restaurants then and now
BY RICHARD GORELICK, THE BALTIMORE SUN
Our favorite old restaurants never go away. Mostly, they linger in our memories, but some of them actually make a return in name, if not in spirit.
Martick’s Restaurant Francais is reopening soon, but as a lounge, which is what it was before it was a French restaurant. And the Charles Street location that once housed the Chesapeake Restaurant, a fine-dining landmark, reopened just last week as a casual restaurant named The Chesapeake.
Seldom does a restaurant retire before returns diminish, at the top of its game, like Greta Garbo or Sandy Koufax. But many decline slowly and quietly, and others are sold to people who either can’t or don’t want to keep things the same. Memory is tricky, though. After a few years, we forget the bad years and remember restaurants at their best.
Reader Carolyn Williams, commenting on an online feature of nostalgic Baltimore restaurants, wrote, “This is making me yearn for a Baltimore I don't remember.” Baltimore’s most missed restaurants are a mix of fine-dining temples, quirky landmarks and fast-food joints. What they share is a powerful hold on our imagination.
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Haussner’s | (1926-1999)
Haussner’s was certainly admired for its cuisine, which combined traditional German specialties like Wiener schnitzel a la Holstein with Mid-Atlantic fare such as crab cakes and terrapin stew. And people still dream about the dessert selection, especially the strawberry pie.
But Haussner’s was loved for being Haussner’s, a one-of-a-kind dining destination, every inch of it decorated with works of art collected by William Henry Haussner’s wife, Frances Wilke Haussner (pictured above).
“At the height of its popularity,” The Baltimore Sun reported in the days leading up to its 1999 closing, “Haussner's served 1,600 meals on Saturdays and patrons waited an hour outside in a line stretching around the corner.”
Legacy: The building and its kitchen equipment were donated to Baltimore International College, now Stratford University’s School of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management. (The building has since been passed on to another owner.) Generally regarded as kitsch during its time, the Haussner’s art collection brought in $11.3 million at a 1999 Sotheby’s auction. Nostalgia for Haussner’s was stoked when the third-season premiere of “Mad Men” included a scene set inside the restaurant.
Martick’s | (1970-2008)
In his home on Mulberry Street, Morris Martick introduced Baltimore to the glories of bouillabaisse, pate and sweet potato soup. And people kept coming back, even when the neighborhood surrounding Martick’s began to fade.
Martick’s Restaurant Francais wasn’t for everybody, which was what made it special. Diners had to buzz their way in; the door was always locked. The odd decor, with its snakeskin wall covering, was a kind of ugly-beautiful that only a true devotee could appreciate.
Mostly there was Morris Martick himself, who, after sending out false alarms for years, finally closed his restaurant in 2008. His death in 2011 made many Baltimoreans feel that an era of colorful characters was coming to a close.
Legacy: There are plans to bring back Martick’s, not as a French restaurant but as a speakeasy-style lounge, in early August.
Marconi’s | (1920-2005)
Couples dined at Maison Marconi once a week, for decades, and ordered the same thing every time — the chopped salad, lobster Cardinale, the lamb chops, the chocolate fudge sundae — served by the same tuxedo-clad waiter. Nothing ever changed, except when it finally did.
Ilene Ruth Booke took over the operations of Marconi’s in 1994, which her parents had purchased in the early 1970s, and did what had been thought unthinkable: She fixed the place up, replacing the scenic wallpaper in the front dining room with cool mint-green paint. And so, in its final years, Marconi’s, which had been famed and beloved for its downright dowdiness, took on a sober, strand-of-pearls elegance.
When lawyer and Orioles owner Peter A. Angelos bought Marconi’s in 2000, he talked of relocating it. He never did, though, and he closed the restaurant five years later.
Legacy: The dowdy and not-so-dowdy periods are hopelessly confused in people’s minds. When Angelos closed the restaurant, he said, “Marconi's is not going to be going away permanently. There will be future announcements in a month or two.” But so far, it has remained closed.
Woman’s Industrial Exchange | (1887-2002; Woman’s Industrial Kitchen, 2011-present)
By the early 1970s, the lunchroom inside the Woman’s Industrial Exchange at Charles and Pleasant streets became well known for being very old-fashioned, the kind of place where ladies in hats still had their luncheon (not lunch). The fare was soft-shell crabs, chilled sockeye salmon with cucumber slices, and Charlotte Russe for dessert. There was a working dumbwaiter but not a cash register.
By the 1990s, things weren’t exactly falling apart, but you could tell that fatigue had set in at the operations, which had been run since the beginning by the Woman’s Industrial Exchange, a benevolent organization established after the Civil War to help needy women find a marketplace for their handiwork. It closed in 2002.
Legacy: Starting in 2003, the renovated space was turned over to a series of outside operators. Then in 2011, a lawyer, chef and food-truck owner named Irene Smith reopened it as the Woman’s Industrial Kitchen. She found just the right balance between old and new, and she brought back the simple white-meat chicken salad and the tomato aspic, which makes people smile just thinking about it.
Louie’s Bookstore Cafe was the place to go for dessert after a show at Center Stage, or late in the afternoon, when you could browse the bookshelves to your heart’s content and sit down with your new book at the long bar in the back.
Opened in Mount Vernon by James Rouse Jr., Louie’s is remembered as much as a gathering spot as a restaurant. The service had a reputation, perhaps unfairly, for sullenness. And the food was good. A few menu items, like the Chesapeake chicken and the okonomiyaki, were excellent.
In 1998, Rouse, who at that time owned the building at 518 N. Charles St., sold the restaurant to two former employees. A year later, Rouse foreclosed on the business and Louie’s closed. Rouse found new buyers who reopened the restaurant in late 1999 and still called it Louie’s, but the books were moved to the basement and the menu was expanded.
Legacy: In the fall of 2000 the name was changed to Scotto’s. A year later, Scotto’s was gone. A restaurant named Ixia opened there, followed by its current tenant, Creme Restaurant & Lounge.
The Brass Elephant | (1977-2009)
The opulent rooms and formally presented meals that attracted diners to the Brass Elephant turned into liabilities when tastes, and the economy, changed. Known for years as the most beautiful restaurant in Baltimore, the Brass Elephant, at 924 N. Charles St., closed in August 2009. “The phone doesn't ring — what can I tell you?” Randy Stahl, one of the restaurant's owners, said at the time. “People still want to go out and be pampered, but they can't afford it as frequently. That's what we've been running up against.”
Legacy: Thwarted in their attempts to sell or auction off 924 N. Charles St., the owners leased the property in 2012 to an outside operator who opened it as The Museum. The liquor board voted in May not to renew the property’s liquor license, and the current status of The Museum is unclear.
Connolly's Sea Food House, a favorite of William Donald Schaefer and famed for its waterfront “old salt” atmosphere, operated out of several ramshackle buildings at Pier 5 and Pratt Street. Old-timers said it was typical of the no-frills seafood houses that once dotted the Baltimore waterfront. The Historic American Buildings Survey of the Library of Congress said “Connolly's Seafood Restaurant, probably constructed during the 1920s, is the last remaining example of structures devoted to historic commercial activity on the finger piers extending into Baltimore's Inner Harbor.”
Legacy: Connolly’s held on until 1991 but eventually made way for the Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration. Mama’s on the Half Shell, which opened in 2003, honors Connolly’s with a menu section of plain seafood preparations it calls Connelly’s Classics. (The variant spelling denotes an homage but not a replica.)
Gino’s | (1959-1991; Gino’s Burgers & Chicken, 2010-present)
Established under the name Gino's in 1959 and named for its co-founder, the Baltimore Colt Hall of Fame defensive end Gino Marchetti, Gino's made its way into the hearts and stomachs of Baltimore’s baby boomers the way diner culture had for the generation that came before.
The favorite was always the Gino Giant, a double-decker wonder that Gino’s introduced before anyone had heard of a Big Mac.The last Gino's, located in Pasadena, closed in 1991. But long before then, Gino’s had left town. Founded in Baltimore, the company relocated its headquarters to King of Prussia, Pa., before it was acquired by Marriott Corp. in 1982.
Legacy: Partners in the former corporation revived the franchise in 2010, calling it Gino's Burgers & Chicken, and opening the first location in Pennsylvania. In August, 2011 the first of the new Gino’s opened in Towson.