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The 100-year-wait for melt-in-your mouth corned beef

The Attman family has been feeding Baltimore for 100 years.

Until about 11:30 a.m., the deli line at Attman's makes sense.

No one takes a number, and no one tells you where to stand. But for decades, customers have formed a line flush against the deli counter from the front of the store to the back, past the cases with smoked fish, past the shelves of pickled tomatoes.

Then at some point, the line gets a little meshugeneh. It doubles back on itself and then takes a jog into the dining area, called the Kibitz Room.

"I get plenty of people in here who are used to the line and actually almost look forward to it because it's an entertaining part of the atmosphere," said David Bush, who has worked at Attman's for 38 years. Bush said customers can be disappointed, or at least confused, when they come in and there isn't a line.

"Sometimes people will walk in and say, 'I'm in the wrong place.' " Bush said. "I'll say, 'What do you mean?' And they'll say, 'There's no line. I can't be the first person to get waited on.'"

The line is as much an attraction as the melt-in-your-mouth corned beef at Attman's, which has been serving customers on Lombard Street since 1933. But the Attman family has been filling Baltimore's stomachs for longer than that. Before the Lombard Street location — about six blocks east of the Inner Harbor — they had another store at East Baltimore and Washington streets, which Harry Attman, an immigrant from Russia, opened in 1915.

The Attman family will be recognized Wednesday, when a proclamation honoring them will be read by Sen. Nathaniel F. McFadden on the floor of the state Senate.

For its first 30 years or so, Attman's was less of an eatery than a store, where you'd come to stock up on essential larder items — dried fruits, nuts, horseradish, genuine Russian Wissotzky tea, pickled plum tomatoes and sweets like teiglach, ingberlach and macaroons.

You could also pick up salami, sausage, bologna and rolled beef. If you happened to ask, they'd make you a sandwich, which you could take away or eat standing at a counter.

But the Attman's we know — a place where you come, stand in line, and order a sandwich — that came later, in the 1960s. The reinvention of Attman's was the work of the late Seymour Attman, Harry Attman's middle son. It was Seymour who changed the grocery into an eatery, expanding a small sandwich menu into a huge one. It was Seymour, too, who coined the phrase "Attmansphere" — the joy-filled bantering and back-and-forth that fills the delicatessen.

"There really aren't many places like Attman's across the county that have managed to fulfill the same social function for so many decades," said Ted Merwin, a professor of religion and Jewish studies at Dickinson College.

The author of the forthcoming "Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli," Merwin said he sees Attmansphere as being distinctly Jewish, and part of the restaurant's enduring appeal.

"It's the atmosphere. It doesn't change even though the majority of the people working there and the people eating there are African-American. Whether people are Jewish or not, they have a certain connection. Even the names of the food are funny. And that's what feeds that level of comfort when they're standing in line," he said. "There aren't that many places where you enjoy standing in line. You don't go to a supermarket to enjoy standing in line."

Kathy and John Cummings visited Attman's recently from their home in Arnold, part of an annual Baltimore trip that also takes them to Rheb's candies.

"I love the line; the line is so exciting," said John Cummings as he sat in the Kibitz Room. "You see every type of person, and everybody's happy to be here. Everybody's here for the same reason. It's just great. It's the closest thing to being in a New York deli."

Cummings said he'd been coming to Attman's since 1962, when he started attending St. Charles College, a preparatory seminary in Catonsville. He managed to get to Attman's only a couple of times a year in those days. "They didn't let us out much," he said.

Across the Kibitz Room, Monsignor Jay F. O'Connor was having his usual.

"I'm pretty standard. I usually get the jumbo corned beef on rye — once in a while, I'll get a hot dog — and a Dr. Brown's soda and a kosher pickle. Only the flavor of Dr. Brown's varies, sometimes it's black cherry, sometimes it's cream soda."

He said he can recall visiting Attman's as a child with his father for their annual Christmas Eve runs. O'Connor said he keeps coming back for the corned beef and the line.

"You get to see a number of characters," he said. "I'm probably one of them, too. And also you engage people in some interesting conversations."

One in a thousand customers will complain about a long wait, said Bush, the store manager. He'll ask the complainers how long they've been coming to Attman's, and they'll say it's been decades.

"It shouldn't be a surprise to you," Bush tells them. "All of our food is prepared to order. Nothing slides down a chute. If it did, you'd be in and out of here."

Larry Rosenberg, the president of the Mark Building Co., was in the Kibitz Room on a Thursday afternoon with colleague Alex Dorsey. It was Dorsey's first time, but not Rosenberg's.

He remembers Seymour Attman's big personality. "Seymour would slice off a piece of corned beef and give it to you and say, 'How's that? Is that a good piece?' He was always at the door, always behind the counter. He was very welcoming. He was a good guy," said Rosenberg, 57, who would visit the deli with his grandfather. "I remember coming down here when there were [live] chickens [for sale]. It was a bustling neighborhood. You would see arabbers coming through with their wagons. This was really a destination."

The Lombard Street of the mid-20th century was home to other delis, greengrocers, dairy stores, bakeries and clothing stores. Shop owners displayed their wares in pushcarts on the sidewalk, and there was, memorably, a store that processed live chickens.

"People came down for the scene," said Barry Kessler, an independent scholar on Jewish culture and former curator at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. And they came to places like Attman's, Kessler said, not just for the corned beef but the experience.

"That coincides with today's restaurant scene, which is very experiential," Kessler said. "People are not only going for the food. It's the whole ambience. You might even say Jews have been seeking that aspect for a long time. Why do Jews go to Chinese restaurants? It's part of an exotic adventure. And for those who couldn't afford to visit a real Old World deli in Europe, it's a way of vicarious sampling."

Changes to Lombard Street began accelerating in the 1950s, with the clearing of blocks for the construction of high-rise housing projects that have since been demolished. Unrest following the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. resulted in the looting, destruction or abandonment of several longtime businesses near the deli. Attman's suffered some fire damage but managed to reopen within weeks.

But the damage to Lombard Street was done.

"The chilling affect was greater than the physical destruction," Kessler said. "It was demoralizing."

Today, Lombard Street looks much the same as it did when the first of many renewal projects were proposed in the mid-1970s. Crumbled or burned buildings have not been rebuilt. Along with Attman's, only two delicatessens remain, neither of those in the same golden-age hands.

Although steeped in history and nostalgia, Attman's has changed with the times.

The corned beef is no longer brined on the premises; it's done by a New York firm that Attman's has been using for years.

"We don't have the space to do it here," said Marc Attman, grandson of the founder and now head of the business. "They do a good job, and they use our proprietary recipe. But I've had to send some back occasionally."

But the corned beef is still boiled in the Lombard Street kitchen fresh each day, Attman said.

"I've had many people try to sell me a prepared product," Attman said. "We will never do that."

Very few people come to Attman's looking for the kind of old-style Jewish food that had shoppers flocking to Lombard Street in the middle part of the 20th-century, Bush said. The store still stocks smoked salmon and boxes of matzo, but not smoked herring or schmaltz. Now, most customers come in for a sandwich to take away or to eat in the Kibitz Room, although Attman's continues to do good business selling sliced meats by the pound.

It was after Seymour Attman died in 2002 at age 76 that Marc Attman took over the business. An optometrist by profession, Attman said he spends about 10 hours a week in the deli and another 10 on the phone. The daily operations are now entrusted to longtime employees like Bush, who started working at Attman's when he was 21.

The delicatessen was never kosher, but like many so-called kosher-style delis, it didn't sell decidedly non-kosher foods like seafood and pork. But now, Attman's offers shrimp salad sandwiches — one of their top sellers, according to Marc Attman — and Italian sandwiches with ham.

Bush described the changing tastes this way: "We have customers come in and order corned beef with ketchup!"

As for the next 100 years, Attman said he's heard some rumblings from nephews and nieces who have expressed interest in getting into the deli business. But for now he's not worried about not having a definite line of succession in place.

"I plan on being around for a while," he said. "I'm not going anywhere."

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com

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