Oriole Cafeterias kept city's workers well-fed

The advertisement caught my eye: "Let's eat. Fried scrapple and hominy. It's only thirteen cents." It appeared at the bottom of The Sun's local news page in 1934. If that amount seems low, I found another — 10 cents for country sausage and fried mush. Adjusted for inflation, the scrapple was $2.06 in today's money. The mush (a corn meal dish) would be $1.56 today.

These dishes were standard fare at Baltimore's Oriole Cafeteria chain, a business that prospered during the Depression. Eating at the Oriole was once a part of going downtown. You could go to one in the business section, in the shopping district or along the North Avenue entertainment-crosstown streetcar section.

Like other cities, Baltimore saw a cafeteria boom in the 1920s. The old Southern Hotel had one in its basement. Horn and Horn had another at Fayette near Holliday. But the Oriole had multiple locations that moved around as Baltimore grew.

From 1922 until 1975, the Oriole was a mainstay of the city's commercial restaurant scene. The places were busy and economical. As the name suggests, they toasted the state of Maryland, its traditions and foods. They were also outfitted in streamlined Art Deco architecture, all stainless steel, terrazzo and modern neon lighting.

The chain was founded by Henry Irving Dunnock, who had roots in Vienna near Cambridge in Dorchester County. His 1957 obituary said that as a young man he worked as a "grub rustler" in a sawmill camp. He came to Baltimore and worked as a short-order cook at a three-stool counter at the Roland Park Shopping Center. His hearty fare catered to the streetcar motormen who worked in the adjoining car barn. A memoir of old Roland Park said that a wealthy local resident paid for him to feed firemen and police officers who worked the 1904 Baltimore fire. He used some of this money to found his downtown cafeteria chain.

By the 1920s, he had opened a full-scale cafeteria on Light Street in the business district. He later had busy food halls on Baltimore Street and on Howard Street and North Avenue. He was an aggressive restaurateur and became president of the National Restaurant Association

I recall the Oriole on its busy Sunday afternoons, after church services. Dunnock put murals of maritime scenes on the walls. He used good architects and even installed an early Hammond organ and hired musicians from the Century and the Valencia theaters to serenade his diners. He took out ads noting that Jack Lederer's orchestra would join with the Hammond to play the music from Gounod's "Faust," as well as the Barcarolle from "The Tales of Hoffman."

Dunnock also played up Maryland fare. He had Sun cartoonist Richard Q. "Moco" Yardley make up a promotional recipe book for bean soup, chicken pie, chicken a la king, cottage chicken, beef stew, lamb pie with biscuit, Russian dressing, bran muffins, corn bread and gingerbread. From time to time, he also published these recipes in newspapers. His promotional materials had photos of the Flag House, Battle Monument and Fort McHenry, as well as the words to the municipal anthem, "Baltimore, Our Baltimore" and the state song, "Maryland, My Maryland" — all three verses.

Dunnock and his son, H. Reginald, moved the cafeterias to York Road, one in Govans and the last to the spot now occupied by Bill Bateman's restaurant near Towson University. His East Baltimore Street location remains a fast-food operation. His 308 N. Howard St. became I. Miller shoes.

And his 11-13 E. North Ave. location remains a vacant lot to this day, thanks to a curious turn of events. Center Stage took over the old cafeteria and used its high ceilings to turn the place into a theater. It flourished in the 1970s until a production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" came along. One cold 1974 night, after audiences left, the theater/ex-cafeteria caught fire and burned, spectacularly.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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