Pikesville's Suburban House may be the only restaurant where avowed nonsmokers insist on being seated in the heart of the cigarette belt.
The premium people-watching seats happen to be in the main dining room. And the chances are, somewhere in this neighborhood institution that is also a restaurant, seeing and being seen counts as much as the thickness of the corned beef sandwiches.
Is the Suburban House really the social center of Pikesville? Some will dispute that, but just look at a busy Sunday. The tables will change seven times and about 1,500 meals will be served. Grandfather and grandmother will be at the head, with assorted generations spread about.
"Sometimes it takes us a long time to seat a party because people won't take their seats. They mill around visiting all their friends and waving to people. You've got to acknowledge your friends. It's part of what makes the Suburban House," says Barbara Panzer, who has worked here for more than 20 years.
And to help you spot the faces better, the management has installed mirrors on almost every wall.
It's a favorite roost of local celebrities. You might see Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, state public safety Secretary Bishop Robinson or former Gov. Marvin Mandel. Come election time, politicians ask permission just to walk the aisles here.
When the old Painters Mill Music Fair had summertime Broadway shows, Gene Kelly, Liberace, Angela Lansbury, Peggy Cass and Forrest Tucker dropped in.
"I know. I've got their autographs on menus," says Marlene Fountain, another veteran waitress.
There's been a restaurant at this location (in the 900 block of Reisterstown Road, backing up to the Suburban Club) for about 40 years. The earliest version was named Mike and Jules, operated by the people who had the old Hilltop Diner made so famous by film director Barry Levinson -- another Suburban House fan when he's in town.
Sidney and Henry Cohen bought the place next (they migrated from North Avenue) and named it Suburban House, taking initials from each of their first names. Regulars began calling the place S&H.; The Cohen ownership lasted until the early 1980s. Then, periods of Greek and Italian management didn't last long.
"We put up a sign on a Friday afternoon, Dec. 13, 1985. The minute we turned on the lights we got killed. We ran out of food the first day. We've been packed ever since," says Joe Stowe, the restaurant's current co-owner.
The success of the place is its delicatessen-restaurant setting. Most customers park in a rear lot and enter the building through a passage that faces a complete Jewish delicatessen. Anyone who can not emerge with a watering mouth has no use for lox, bagels, cream cheese, corned beef, chicken salad, pickles, borscht and bread pudding.
"We let the food be the calling card. We serve what people want. Look at our chicken pot, an authentic Jewish dish. We serve it in a large Pyrex glass bowl, half a boiled chicken, matzo balls, noodles, broth and carrots. People say they can't eat it all, but they do."
"I see girls come in here -- they've just finished working out. They order a salad, but a minute later they're driving a fork into their friend's mashed potatoes and gravy. And potatoes, we must serve more french fries and gravy than any other restaurant," owner Stowe says.
He and his partner, Mark Horowitz, whose parents owned local delicatessens, credit their restaurant's energy with helping boost the Pikesville restaurant scene.
"In 1985, when we bought this place, Pikesville's business district was dying. And people told us we were crazy, that the Suburban House was dead in the water. We feel we brought so many people home again that all the other new restaurants could open along the street," Stowe says.