CLAUDIA COFFEY hadn't slept for a whole week. She tied a white handkerchief to her wrist to dab the tears.
"This is really heartbreaking," she said as she checked coats for people at the Pimlico Restaurant, which closed last night after more than 40 years.
Regular eaters know her as the living legend who created one of Pimlico's favorite dishes, the Coffey Salad. It's "a Pimlico exclusive created by our own Claudia Coffey," said the menu. "A garden-fresh medley of lettuce, tomato and onion accented with anchovies, hard-boiled egg, garlic and freshly grated imported Parmesan."
Coffey is a waitress who worked there more than 30 years. Last night, old customers hugged her goodbye, familiar faces wished her well. As she spoke of fond memories and being part of a wonderful family, tears welled up in her eyes and a cracked voice broke her speech. "I've cried all this week," she said. "I've worked here so long and I've made it my home."
It was home to many.
For roughly four decades, Baltimoreans, horse-racing fans and celebrities flocked to the Pimlico Restaurant -- a.k.a the Pimlico Hotel at Park Heights Avenue -- for fine food and fine service. Known for its fat egg rolls, custard-layered cakes and thick menu, the Pimlico was a celebrated eatery, a place where you could rub shoulders with local politicians, chow down on good food and catch up with old friends. Thousands of people -- famous, notorious, ordinary -- flocked to the restaurant throughout the years. Actress Mitzi Gaynor, rock star Robert Palmer, musician Doc Severinson, actress Angela Lansbury and actor Don Ameche, the more famous ones, came and left autographed photographs for prosperity.
Close to 600 people came for one last meal and to talk about the old days when founder Leon Shavitz greeted you at the door and knew your name, when a corned beef sandwich cost 10 cents and a 14-oz. prime sirloin steak dinner with french fries was $3.75. They took menus home with them, as mementos, and asked favorite waiters and waitresses where they would find them.
People like Julia Chor and Renee Kaham, who frequented Shavitz's first eatery, Nate's and Leon's deli on North Avenue at Linden, came for the nostalgia -- and the dill pickles and warm rolls.
"No matter what you ordered, you got a pickle and good rolls," said Chor.
"And nobody served better coffee," said Kaham.
After horse races, Chor and Kaham used to meet friends at the Pimlico Hotel for a bite to eat. "You were lucky that you could get in because it was so crowded," Kaham said. "This and the Orioles are really Baltimore."
Every time Mary Brown of northwest Baltimore came to the Pimlico Restaurant, she knew she'd get good service and good food. "There are fine restaurants, but there's only one Pimlico," she said. "I have never had bad service, and their crab cakes leave nothing to be desired."
Owner Al Davis, the son-in-law of Leon Shavitz, announced last week that he was shutting down the restaurant.
"Several buyers appeared on the scene," he said. "It was right. The time was right.
"Seeing people meet at the Pimlico, get married here, have children and have their children's christening here . . . it's a lot of memories," he said. "Thanks for the memories."
Davis and his family -- even 81-year-old Min Shavitz, wife of Leon -- walked from table to table, greeting old friends and thanking loyal customers for one last time.
Melvin and Ruth Kabik sat in a cozy corner booth, watching people pass by. Ruth ate a slice of the famous Pimlico cake and took some home for the freezer. "Whenever there was a special occasion there was a Pimlico cake," she said. "If my friends were throwing me a surprise birthday party, they'd know to come here to get a Pimlico cake."
She recalled that when Leon Shavitz was alive, he used to stand in the kitchen and inspect every dish, touching the plate to see if it was hot. If it didn't pass his inspection, she said, it didn't get to the customer. "He knew everyone who came in," she said. "It was almost a family reunion. Whoever comes in here will never be able to replace him."
A 1970 issue of "Food World" marked the restaurant's 20th anniversary with a story that went "Tis truly a 'giant step for any man' to progress from $11 per day to $1,600,000 per year within the span of 20 years. But this is the astronomical accomplishment of Leon Shavitz and his Pimlico Hotel."
Shavitz and deli partner Leon Herr turned the 1875 hotel, a favorite stay for international sportsmen, into a restaurant in 1951. They found a loyal following, especially among the Jewish population, and moved to the current location at Commercentre on Reisterstown Road in 1981. Customers complained they felt unsafe at the Park Heights Avenue location.
"When you came in and you saw Leon, he made your night," said 43-year-old Harvey Snyder, who's been coming to the restaurant since he was a kid. "Everybody was special to him. He made you feel like you were a movie star. He made the Pimlico."
Jacob Cardin and his wife, Florence, disabled octogenarians, ate a dinner of crispy broiled chicken and baked potato every single night for five years at Pimlico. "They'd come, rain or shine or snow," said Deloris Edwards, their nurse. "They like the chicken."
"My wife, she's disabled and can't cook, so we go out every night," he said.
Now, he said, they have to find a new place.
But it won't be the same.