With new ownership, Jimmy's Restaurant turns a page in Fells Point

Fells Point stalwart Jimmy's has changed hands, but the new owner aims to maintain the nostalgic vibe.

Rustem "Rudy" Keskin spent Wednesday morning darting around Jimmy's Restaurant refilling coffee mugs, wiping down counters, straightening chairs and greeting customers. It was his first full day as the Fells Point diner's owner — and the first time the restaurant has been owned by anyone outside the Filipidis family since it opened in 1946.

Although the name will remain the same, the new ownership at Jimmy's marks a sea change for the Baltimore institution, one of the few relics of old Baltimore that has weathered decades of transition in the neighborhood.

A hub for political power brokers and celebrities, Jimmy's has attracted as many of the rich and famous as it has ordinary neighbors during its 70 years. Nick Filipidis, the previous owner, rattled off a string of sports icons, politicians and movie stars his restaurant has served — among them, Hillary Clinton, Orlando "Zeus" Brown, Rick Dempsey and Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

"I can't list everybody that's come through the door," he said.

Keskin, who also owns Rudy's Mediterranean Grill in Columbia, bought Jimmy's from Filipidis, whose father, Jimmy, opened the restaurant. The space was first called Jimmy's Confectionary, a concept Filipidis referred to as "the original 7-Eleven."

"It just kept evolving little by little," said Filipidis, 69. "He put in different things, took out different things, and it just grew until, really until my wife and son and I took it over."

His father's picture hung on the wall until Filipidis took it down and took it home Tuesday.

The other art will stay, Keskin said, as he plans to maintain the restaurant's decor in addition to its name. Paper placemats still adorn the tables in the no-frills diner, while portraits of local politicians line the walls.

On the menu, he'll make small adjustments, like using fresh potatoes instead of frozen ones and touching up the interior. In the spring he plans to expand Jimmy's hours to offer dinner, when he'll serve the Turkish and Mediterranean cuisine his Columbia restaurant offers, including hummus, chicken kebabs, gyros, baklava and Turkish coffee. He also hopes to keep the restaurant open 24 hours on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Keskin, 42, has been friends with the Filipidis family for about six years. When Filipidis was looking for someone to take over the business, he didn't want to put it on the market and asked Keskin if he was interested.

"He's going to take care of it. He sees what's got to be done. He's not overly aggressive as far as coming in," Filipidis said. "I just hope it remains somewhat of what it was — of what it is."

The restaurant has served as a customary meeting place for local politicians. Gov. Larry Hogan continued that tradition when he met with incoming Baltimore City Council members at the restaurant two weeks ago.

And many of those politicians, like Mikulski, a Fells Point native, became regular customers.

"We knew her when she was a community activist," Filipidis said.

She ultimately launched her final campaign at Jimmy's.

Former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon said she used to go to Jimmy's after church on Sundays with her kids, and she continues to return. Whether it's warm or cold outside, she orders the hot chocolate.

"It's just been a real staple in the community, and they've seen so much change around them, for the better in a lot of ways," she said. "It's that Baltimore feel when you go into Jimmy's."

Keiffer Mitchell Jr., a special adviser to Hogan, is another customer who said his kids practically grew up at Jimmy's. Mitchell has fond memories dining there as a child, too. He met former Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, another regular, at the restaurant in 1976.

"I still go there at least once a week, mainly Saturdays with my kids," he said. "What's kept me going back there is mainly Nick and Jimmy. They're family they treated me and my kids like family."

When he walks in, the servers know his order — the breakfast special in the morning, or sloppy joes and fries for lunch.

Vince Peranio, a Fells Point resident and film production designer and art director who has worked on John Waters' films, said Jimmy's has been a stalwart in the community since he moved to the neighborhood in 1967.

"For me, Jimmy's has been the anchor of Fells Point; it has been always the thing that never changed," he said.

He always orders a cheeseburger and french fries with gravy.

It's longtime employees like Lillie McCubbin who anticipate the needs of those regular patrons. McCubbin started working at Jimmy's in 1980, the day she turned 15, and said she's worked every role at the restaurant, from line cook to server (she remembers waiting on Johnny Unitas). She's worked under five different owners, all in the Filipidis family until now.

In more than 30 years, she said, the restaurant has changed "a lot, and then not so much."

The familiarity of the old Baltimore institution is what gives it its charm, patrons said, and local guests like Jennifer Jericho of Fells Point were happy to hear that Keskin doesn't plan to change that. She and her friends, who come at least once a month for a weekend breakfast, were "terrified" when they heard about the ownership change, she said.

"Everyone's getting nervous because Fells Point is changing a lot," she said Wednesday while sitting at the counter. "As locals, there's something to be said for the port of Fells, and although we're excited about all the renovations, we don't want it to turn into like an open strip mall. So I hope that it keeps its genuine feel."

She's been coming to Jimmy's for several years for the home fries, the coffee and the warm staff.

"They treat everyone the same," Mitchell said. "They don't care if you're president of the United States or president of your neighborhood association."

Filipidis will stay on board to help with the ownership transition but said he's looking forward to having time to relax.

As for what he'll miss?

"The coffee," he said. "I can't get a good cup of coffee anywhere but here."

smeehan@baltsun.com

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