You can't get a Cheese E Q before 6 p.m. The sun has to go down before Dundalk Avenue's Circle Bar-B-Q opens. The voltage charges through the big flashing sign and a blender churns the first batch of milk shakes. Before long, customers call out, "A pound with rolls."
Circle regulars know the routine. The fast-food restaurant at Dundalk Avenue and Gusryan Street has only 11 items on its menu and most people order a barbecue sandwich and a milk shake. Few customers are there for the first time. Most grew up in this end of Highlandtown, just across the street from Steelworkers Hall.
"The night we opened, July 3, 1947, the parking lot was packed," said 74-year-old Francis E. Gretz, the Circle's founder and owner. "We never advertised. We never did anything but build this, open and have the barbecue ready."
He wears a clean shirt and neck tie behind the counter or in his kitchen. His wife, Helen, who helped conceive the idea for the place, died in 1974.
The Circle is true to its name. It's a one-story, perfectly round building (38 feet in diameter) made of concrete and painted white. Letters composed of more than 1,000 individual orange flashing light bulbs spell out "BAR-B-Q." There's also an elevated sign made in the shape of a barbecue sandwich.
It used to revolve, but winds tore up its motor.
This East Baltimore landmark is featured in the 1984 book, "Baltimore Deco." It's changed little (still no air conditioning or window screens) and has an original stainless steel soda fountain, counter and a few tables.
"I got the idea for this place from Orye's on 25th Street," Gretz said of a 1930s fast-food restaurant renowned for the same kind of fare he serves today. "They once had the best pork barbecue in town. It was quite an operation."
Since he opened on Dundalk Avenue, his basic operation has remained constant and he has kept the menu small: a sweet pork barbecue, barbecue with cheese (hence the locally legendary Cheese E Q), hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and cheese steaks, as well as classic thick milk shakes. Coffee and soft drinks are offered, but few bother ordering them. A number of patrons take home a pound of barbecue and the sauce that accompanies it.
"I've been coming here for years," said Paul Craft, a Dundalk resident who drove up one night this week for a bag of Cheese E Qs and milk shakes. "My parents came before me. There was time on a Friday or Saturday night that you couldn't get near the parking lot."
Like most Circle customers, he placed his order at a side window. No need to speak into a microphone when Audrey is working.
"Two Cheese E Qs," she calls out in a voice that could be heard two miles away in Sparrows Point.
She's worked here for more than 20 years and seems to know precisely what people will order before their cars hit the parking lot.
Audrey is the fountain mixologist who produces the thick milk shakes in record batches. During a busy jolt of trade at 10 p.m., she juggled change and bags of barbecue as the blender erupted with occasional blasts of chocolate milk.
She takes half gallons of partially frozen milk from a refrigerator, pounds them with a rubber-headed mallet to break up the solids, and dumps that into a blender for a frothy immersion with vanilla ice cream and chocolate flavoring. No chemicals, no additives.
SG "If you let one of our milk shakes melt, you get milk," said Gretz.