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At G & A Restaurant in Highlandtown, memory's on the menu

G & A Restaurant opened in 1927 at 3802 Eastern Avenue. For people who grew up in Highlandtown, it's a common touchstone.
G & A Restaurant opened in 1927 at 3802 Eastern Avenue. For people who grew up in Highlandtown, it's a common touchstone. (Natalie Sherman)

For Proust, a madeleine brought on the memories. In Highlandtown, it's hot dogs.

A crowd of roughly 30 filled the back tables of G & A Restaurant Saturday: a toddler, a daughter visiting from New Zealand, an aunt and niece down from Pennsylvania, and a 93-year-old former insurance man who remembers walking to the shop as a boy to stare at the franks turning on the spit.

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They had come for an informal, almost-family reunion of people who grew up in Highlandtown, back before the real estate agents and marketing gurus got a hold of it, when the name referred to the entire 21224 zip code, covering Canton, Greektown, industrial zones, parts of Fells Point and Patterson Park.

A lot has changed outside the doors of G & A since Greek immigrants opened the store on Eastern Avenue in 1927, but for this group of Highlandtown alumni, the inside still feels like home.

That's why it's become the hub for the semi-regular offline reunions organized by the Facebook group "You know you grew up in Highlandtown if …" that 35-year-old Tiffany Bock created about five years ago, after a bad day.

"I really wanted to talk to someone that understood my background," said Bock, who works as an environmental analyst. "Everything has changed so much. It's as if there's not enough understanding of what it was."

Bock, who moved to Parkville in 2013, said meet-ups weren't part of her original plan for the group, which now has more than 5,000 members. Those started a few years ago, becoming a semi-annual event that now draws dozens — and at least once has kept the shop open well past its typical 7 p.m. closing time.

"I was completely surprised," said Bock, who had tried other venues for meet-ups that weren't as popular. "I had tried some other ones before that, but they never worked, not until G & A."

The hole-in-the-wall restaurant is a staple of memories for people in the group, which a visit can make flesh: milkshakes, hot dogs, soups, burgers and crushed ice, families squeezed into the same counters and diner booths for generations.

"If you put a mention on there, it always lights up," said Pete Schisler, 42, referring to whenever G & A is mentioned on the Facebook page. Schisler's grandmother worked in the restaurant for more than 30 years and is one of the people who have helped organize the meet-ups.

Founded in 1927 by Gregory and Alex Diacumakos, whose portrait sits on the counter, the restaurant is now run by Gregory's grandson Andy Farantos and his wife, Alexia, who were on hand Saturday, topping drinks with whipped cream.

"When I got out of college, it was either CPA or this," said Farantos, who bought the store from his father and uncle about 30 years ago after graduating from the University of Maryland with a degree in accounting. "This is what I chose to do with my life."

The menu tends to soups, crab cakes and, more recently, barbecue beef, but for many the favorite remains the Coney Island hot dog, with mustard, onions and chili. The Diacumakos cousins became familiar with this variety while working in the New York amusement park after making it through Ellis Island.

The store, like the neighborhood, has weathered ups and downs — the Great Depression, the Second World War, the closing of major employers and other haunts that made Eastern Avenue the original "Avenue," the migration away of blue-collar families, even as new immigrants move in to help revive the strip.

The Highlandtown group is nostalgic about the way neighbors watched out for each other — teenage kisses were quickly reported to parents — but people said they know the changes aren't all bad.

For John Schmid, 93, brought by his daughter for the occasion from Owings Mills, the drive in revealed the way some streets have cleaned up.

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"I marveled at how beautiful those dumpy houses are," he said. "Now this place looks like someplace out of Paris."

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