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Last call on last day for last of Harborplace originals

Dick Smith, who was there when the place opened 31 years ago, was back at his piano bar in Phillips Seafood Sunday afternoon, the last day of business at Harborplace for the last of the original tenants. Smith played "As Time Goes By," and longtime customers gathered on the high chairs around his piano to enjoy the song and a final crab cake.

"I was here the day it opened and the piano has not moved from this spot," said Smith, who played and led sing-alongs in the restaurant in Harborplace's Light Street Pavilion. Except for a bout of illness that once kept him away for two weeks, he's been banging the keys and singing songs six days a week since 1980. He used to play piano with the Phillips Gangplank Ragtime Band on weekends, too.

"It was an absolutely great run here," Smith said between songs. "So many memories."

Smith plans to be at the keyboard next month when Phillips reopens as a 500-seat restaurant in the Power Plant, across the Inner Harbor, in the space formerly occupied by the ESPN Zone.

Smith and other longtime and former employees gathered in the restaurant Sunday to recall the years when Harborplace was new and creating a national buzz as a model of urban redevelopment. From Day One, Phillips was its most prominent tenant and, in short time, one of the busiest and highest-grossing restaurants in the country.

"I was tending bar the day it opened," said Jimmy King, recalling July 2, 1980, a historic day for downtown Baltimore. "We had seven bartenders and the crowd was 12 people deep. We had to close the bar at 11:30 [instead of 2 a.m.] because we ran out of beer and wine and all we had was liquor."

"He made me a Kahlua and cream," recalled Wendy Flowers, who worked in accounting for the restaurant while she attended Western High School and, later, what was then called Towson State University.

Flowers can still remember some of the "server numbers" of the young men and women who waited on tables over the years.

"Jerry Sandusky worked here," she said, referring to the WBAL-TV sports anchor and Baltimore Ravens play-by-play announcer. "Server No. 416." Two other waitresses from the old days: Catherine Curran, now Catherine Curran O'Malley, Maryland's first lady, and her sister, Alice.

Like King and several other Phillips employees who attended the closing-day reunion, Flowers married a Phillips co-worker. Her husband, Dean Flowers, was hired to manage the payroll years ago and is now the chief financial officer of Phillips Food and Seafood Restaurants. Jimmy King's wife, Wendi, worked as a waitress, head waitress and bartender. King is now a vice president of finance for the international seafood company and restaurant chain.

"I got a baby-daddy from here and a husband from here," said Myrna Pinkney Briscoe, who worked in the kitchen for Phillips from 1981 to 2009. Both men were line cooks; she's still married to Godfrey Briscoe.

"I loved this place," Myrna Briscoe said. "I had the best memories here. … We prepared crab cakes and mussels and clams — the mussels in those little buckets, right?"

Virginia Jackson, who worked for 26 years in Phillips Seafood Express — the take-out annex — nodded in recognition of that daily chore.

"David Letterman, and Curly Neal of the Harlem Globetrotters," Jimmy King said when asked to list celebrities who had been Phillips Harborplace customers over the years.

"Muhammad Ali and his entourage," said Mike Wirt, a one-time waiter, now a Phillips information technology executive. "And Bill Cosby. And lots of baseball players. When the All-Star game was here [in 1993], that was pretty exciting."

"Queen Latifah was here," said Michael Jordan, who was a bartender from 1985 to 1992.

"Brad Pitt," Jimmy King added, after comparing memories with another Phillips mixologist, Berveyn "Bird" Brown. He and his brother, Kenny, worked for Phillips in the 1980s. They all recalled days when the line of customers wrapped around the large glass windows that look out on the promenade and Inner Harbor.

Phillips appeared to be doing a steady lunch and dinner business on its last Harborplace day, a football Sunday in late summer. The company said in July that it would lay off 120 workers as part of its move to the Power Plant but planned to hire back as many of those employees as it could.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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