By Erik Maza
5:40 PM EDT, November 5, 2011
In one corner of the bar, a couple finished a crab cake sandwich. In the dining room, several families wearing lobster bibs struggled with their steamed crabs.
That Saturday's lunch at Obrycki's in Fells Point was business as usual belied the fact that sometime before 10 p.m., it would serve its last meal in a city where it had spent nearly 70 years.
The restaurant will keep its locations at BWI-Marshall Airport and at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, but plans for a new location at the Arundel Mills mall have fallen through, owner Rob Cernak said. The Cernak family is exploring locations outside the state.
"It's gonna be sad," said Eileen Kaminski, who started working there in 1972. "We're all gonna be crying, especially me, even though I said I wouldn't. It's been a major part of my life."
It's the latest closing of a Baltimore mainstay; Burke's and Werner's both shut down within the past year.
Unlike some other iconic restaurants, Obrycki's didn't see business ebb over the years. Since it announced its closing late last year, Cernak said it's been busier than ever, with "people trying to get their last taste in." The restaurant was booked solid for Saturday night.
Among those paying their respects early in the day was Michael Stein, a 53-year-old mental health therapist who hadn't been to the restaurant in more than a decade but traveled from Virginia for the occasion.
"When I heard the news, I said, 'We've got to go,'" Stein said. He bought an Obrycki's T-shirt online, and dragged along his girlfriend for one last bite of the restaurant's lump crab meat.
The restaurant played a big role in Stein's childhood. "I've been coming here since I was 4. My grandfather spanked me outside once," he said. In the early '60s, eating hard-shelled crabs was a special treat, and his grandparents, who lived in Washington, and his own family in Virginia, would make the trek to Baltimore just for the restaurant. Back then, he remembers the crabs were "monster-sized."
"It was our favorite family restaurant," he said. "Birthdays, holidays, wedding anniversaries. We always came here. "
Obrycki's first opened in 1944 inside two rowhouses at East Pratt and Regester Streets. Then, each room inside the building, from the cozy kitchen to one of the bedrooms, was "a little dining room with small tables," Kaminski recalled.
Instead of a dishwasher, "We had a little lady standing on milk crates washing dishes," Kaminski said.
It was that modesty that customers came to appreciate. "There was nothing extravagant about it. It was a nice quiet location. You'd get a dozen crabs and eat and that was it," said Nick Filipidis, whose family runs another Fells Point landmark, Jimmy's Restaurant.
The Cernaks bought it from the original owner, Ed Obrycki, in 1976, and a decade later, moved it across the street to the more spacious building where it is today. Some said the new location lacked the homey warmth of the original.
But with its signature black pepper crab seasoning, the restaurant became in the mind of many the quintessential Baltimore crab house. The New York Times called it one of the greatest in the world. And it remained a fixture of the local landscape, a draw for tourists and celebrities — including Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler, and as recently as this year, U2's Bono.
"It was a great asset to the neighborhood, brought in a lot of tourists. Even if it was in North Fells, people would make their way down to the water and walk around," said Filipidis. "It's a sad thing. It's like Haussner's leaving, or Burke's."
Cernak said the family had been planning to close for two years, even before his mother, Rosy, who'd long worked the front of the house, died late last year.
The live crab business has grown stressful. The restaurant would have needed major investments to keep it going at the caliber the family wanted, Cernak said. And the family wanted to spend more time away from work. The Cernaks let hand-picked managers run small versions of the business at the airports in Baltimore and Cleveland.
"I've been in the business since I was 10," he said. "It's been years of missing football games and lacrosse games because the business needed us there. If we can live making less money and a free Saturday and enjoy the family, you can't put a price on that."
The family wanted to quit while Obrycki's was still popular. "Fortunately, we were able to go out on our terms," Cernak said. He added that an announced restaurant at the planned slots parlor near Arundel Mills mall won't happen, because the family disagreed with the vision of Cordish Companies, which is operating the slots parlor. The company did not respond to requests for comment.
Cernak said the family is negotiating to open a new restaurant outside Maryland; he declined to specify the two possible locations. The crab cakes will continue to be available at the airport locations. And the restaurant has struck a deal with Harbour House Crabs to deliver its crabs by FedEx.
For the last day in Fells Point, Kaminski wore her Sunday best, a soft-pink blouse with a flowery print. "I'll miss the regulars," she said. "Even if they weren't friend friends, they still became a part of my life."
Cernak ordered 30 bushels of crabs to accommodate the crowds they're expecting, and at some point, all the Cernaks will gather for a meal together.
"It's one of the things we've never been able to do," he said.
And then at 10, they'll close early for a party that'll be for the extended family as well, the Cernaks and the employees of both the BWI-Marshall and the Fells Point restaurants.
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