Harvey House restaurant earned its loyal following


In the last few years the Harvey House was clearly winding down. One of Charles Street's institutions was taking the slow and dignified route to closing.

When owners Lou Baumel and son Barry decided to shut down for good about two weeks ago, the word had long been out on the street. Old customers had their chance to make one last trip to what once reigned as one of the city's most popular dining rooms.

In its heyday, the Harvey House and its loyal patrons helped define some of the qualities that make Baltimore.

Like the town it served, the Harvey House was homey and overstuffed. The place was all heart. The food was not fancy or sophisticated and it arrived in large portions.

The more the waitresses used the hon word, the more you knew you were in the right place. It might take two or three trips to be accepted here, but once that had been accomplished, people would inquire solicitously about your mother's health.

Even the address, 920 N. Charles St., a block away from the Washington Monument, seemed right.

The dining room looked like it belonged to somebody's Aunt Eunice. No decorator ever got near the place. It was filled with mahogany china cabinets, cut glass wine decanters, figurines and pictures that would never go in the Walters Art Gallery.

There were some hanging lamps that might have been chucked out when some other restaurant was redecorating. It all fit in here.

The dining room had a motherly touch, doubtless given it by the late Rose Baumel, who ran the restaurant with her husband and son. Rose liked dinner plates with big roses and peonies. She put them on display. She wanted everyone to be relaxed and well fed.

She was a fine lady whose death several years ago removed an essential ingredient from the place.

When you sat down, you were handed a free relish tray with carrots and celery. Then came Rose's chopped liver and crackers. When other places were serving desserts with French names, the Harvey House was famous for big thick slices of coconut cake.

When your check came, Rose threw in a some chocolate chip cookies. You had consumed enough to hibernate through a long, cold winter, but nobody ever refused those cookies.

Lou Baumel likes to remind people that his name has been on a liquor license longer than any other Charles Street licensee.

The Baumels believed in family and friends. Lou stood at the door and greeted his old regulars. Name recognition was essential.

Once recognized, friends visited from table to table, calling out salutations from across the room. The noise level indicated everybody was having a merry old time.

Some people had regular tables. One of them was the restaurateur Cy Bloom, who himself had once been a business partner with Lou Baumel at the old Club Charles at Charles and Preston streets.

Lou Baumel likes to remind people that his name has been on a liquor license longer than any other Charles Street licensee.

On Friday night, 20 minutes after the curtain went down on a Mechanic Theatre performance of "Fiddler on the Roof," the Harvey House would be at full tilt. It was a sea of Baltimorisms -- artificial hair coloring, rhinestone eyeglasses and synthetic fibers.

The bar, which was three or four deep with imbibers during the Lyndon Johnson years, could have been an enlarged version of a happy club cellar.

There was a piano player and a very convivial spirit as the martini, the Scotch-and-soda and Bourbon old fashioned glasses clinked. And somehow, until the other day when the "Closed for Renovations" sign went on the door, it was always 1965 here.

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