On a late Tuesday morning this week, about two dozen mostly longtime residents of the South Baltimore area peered through the darkened rooms of Club 4100, its wood-paneled walls lit only by daylight streaming in from outside.
The longtime Baltimore Colts hangout, frequented in its heyday by Johnny Unitas and other local sports stars as well as Brooklyn Park's middle-class families, was once again on the auction block, its most recent owners now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Clement Kusiak, a former president of the Brooklyn Lions Club, which held its meetings at Club 4100 for decades, said there were few bidders that day. The auction started at 11 a.m., and most people left by 11:30, Kusiak said. Nobody bought the property.
"They were trying to figure out what was going on," said Kusiak. Like most of the attendees, he said, he went to the auction out of curiosity and did not bid on the property. "There were quite a few different rumors" among local residents about what had become of Club 4100 in recent years, he said.
Ownership of the historic restaurant-bar — its walls still lined with sports memorabilia and signed photographs — has been in flux since 2007, when brothers Manny and Dino Spanomanolis first put the restaurant up for sale. Initially, the brothers were not satisfied with the offers they were getting, but ended up selling the property, which includes an adjacent parking lot, to Kingsville residents Meena and Raj Harkie in late 2007.
The couple, immigrants from Guyana, pledged to keep the traditional American menu and feel of the restaurant, and Meena Harkie said she made around $300,000 to $400,000 in improvements to Club 4100. She said she bought the restaurant from the Spanomanolis brothers for about $950,000.
"It's a beautiful, beautiful place, but it's a shame," Harkie said. "I took that property, I cleaned that property and I cooked such good food for people." But, she says, "the Brooklyn people didn't appreciate that."
Harkie said she now owes about $200,000 on the restaurant, and recently gave the key to the place to her lenders. Lawyers for the current owners declined to comment on their plans for Club 4100.
"I give them the property, and they're going to take it and see how much they're going to sell it for," Harkie said.
Harkie estimated it has been about a year since the restaurant closed, largely because of her health problems, including debilitating back pain. Kusiak said the local Lions Club stopped holding its meetings at Club 4100 in June 2010.
"We just felt we needed a change, and we wanted to move on," Kusiak said. "It had to do with the quality of the food we were being served, the timing of the food. It just didn't have the tradition that we were accustomed to."
And, Kusiak said, the Harkies changed many of the old restaurant staff, who knew their longtime customers by name.
"People want to walk into a place where someone knows them," Kusiak said. "If the help is being changed all the time and they don't know the people going in, they're like, 'Well, gee, I can go anywhere and be treated like that.'"
Attendance at the restaurant's annual Easter Sunday party — where the Lions Club traditionally took free photos of children with the Easter Bunny — dropped precipitously the first year under new ownership, Kusiak said, and he added that fewer and fewer people dropped in on the restaurant for dinner.
But Harkie believes her ethnicity prompted a backlash against their owning the property. People whom she did not specifically name would urge customers not to go there, she said, or call the business to tell the Harkies to leave.
"I have so much issues with that property, with people trying to run us out of here," Harkie said, although Kusiak said he never witnessed racist behavior against the Harkies.
Kusiak, who lives in Linthicum, said he hopes a restaurant returns to the Club 4100 site and livens up the neighborhood. He doubts, though, whether an establishment with the same casual, family atmosphere can survive, pointing to the trendy restaurants of Federal Hill as proof that times may have passed Club 4100 by.
The red-black-and-white sign for Club 4100 still hangs at the corner of 4th and Edison streets, advertising "the Best in Food-Cocktails" and "Banquet Facilities," cater-corner from Shark's Tooth liquor store in an otherwise residential neighborhood.
"The facility is a landmark," Kusiak said. "It has a name that has been carried not only in the state of Maryland but outside the state of Maryland. People want to see it come back."