Burke's food, atmosphere never disappointed

Burke's Cafe, the downtown restaurant that closed last week, was so very Baltimore. You could get oyster stew or sour beef and know it would be precisely the way you remembered it.

It was always open. Its menu was frozen in time. A late Sunday breakfast, with Bloody Marys, did not cost $53, as I recently shelled out at a stylish venue in Woodberry. Burke's was not stylish. The terms "ceviche," "veal cheeks" and "confit" did not appear on its menu. What did appear? Potato pancakes with applesauce.

And by the way, despite what a recent news story said, the Burke onion rings were not greasy. They were delicious. A friend of mine, John Stanford, wrote this week: "The 2[-inch-]thick onion rings were to die for; a meal in themselves." He also recalled another Burke's barroom feature, its freshwater fish tank "with humongous oscar and plecostomus fish."

On a cold January day, I could use one of Burke's grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches. Also the eggs and omelets were excellent. You could have them with a side order of Taylor's pork roll.

I think of Burke's good standards and reliability in the 1970s, pre-Harborplace, when downtown Baltimore seemed to be faltering and so many of our reliable restaurants had closed. We suffered a restaurant shortage. No Miller Brothers; the Southern Hotel closed. There were other casualties — Horn and Horn, Oyster Bay, Cy Bloom's Place in the Alley. Despite efforts to rebuild the commercial heart of Baltimore, restaurants kept folding. A Schrafft's at Hopkins Plaza lasted only a few years; the Charcoal Hearth, beneath the old Mechanic Theatre, had as much hard luck as the playhouse in the 1970s.

But Baltimore remained resilient. It was not the end of the world. As the old downtown commercial district faltered, Fells Point and Little Italy took up the slack and prospered.

But good old Burke's stuck to its knitting, a bar that served substantial food. I wonder where I will find such good beef stew again. Stew is not a term that finds a lot of favor among the precious food people. Richard A. Lidinsky Jr., the federal Maritime Commission chairman, reminded me about how, years ago, he had to run takeout orders of Burke's stew to Rep. Edward Garmatz, who fancied it. Baltimore was once not afraid to be a great stew town. Up on Saratoga Street, Marconi's had its version of stew and called it beef ragout. In Southeast Baltimore, the Sip 'n Bite's stew could fill you for a week.

Burke's never pretended to be fancy, despite its faux English interior. As you walked in the front door, you noticed shelves of liquor and wine for takeout sale. Not fancy French or California wines. Bottles of hooch were available seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. I loved Burke's late at night because you could be fed long after so many other places would turn you away. It had an amazingly long bar. I once saw a serious drinker topple off a stool there. The waitresses could handle any situation that came their way.

I loved to return to Burke's after an event at the Baltimore Convention Center, where the catered food was expensive and tasteless. Burke's food also had the Harborplace chains beat. But it never found favor among tourists.

As a young reporter, I learned of its role in getting out the day's editions at the old News American. During the lull after the first edition, reporters and editors headed across Lombard Street to friendly Burke's. You stood a good chance of picking up a news tidbit there, as it was full of lawyers and politicians. It was packed during the 1970s political corruption trials.

In the days before cell phones and pagers, you had backup eyes and ears, too. Flossie Taylor and the other News American phone operators were a resourceful bunch. A blackboard with important phone numbers stood beside their telephone switchboards. Burke's number led the list. One call, and she could empty the bar.


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