Quaint Earned The Old-Fashioned Way


The sign hanging inside the window of Chick & Ruth's Delly never would have fit in colonial Annapolis. There's no getting around that fact.

Of course, neither would the Burger King up the street. Nor Fran O'Brien's, the Banana Republic nor the MOST machine at the bank. Nor, for that matter, the two leading opponents of the sign, city aldermen John Hammond and Carl Snowden, unless they start wearing powdered wigs and buckles on their shoes.

Annapolis is an historic town. The city's uniqueness stems from its pre-Revolutionary War beginnings. It owes its identity, its fame and much of its economy to John Paul Jones' tomb and William Paca's house.

But the clock didn't stop at the turn of the 18th century. Annapolis wasn't like Williamsburg or Jamestown, which flourished during colonial days and then died, to be resurrected later as museums. Annapolis had a life after George Washington.

Mr. Hammond says Chick & Ruth's neon sign -- a small, non-flashing affair consisting of the words "Delicatessen," "Breakfast," and "Kosher-style sandwiches" -- must go because it's "not in keeping with the historic image we're trying to project."

But Annapolis has 200 other years of history, too. Not everything that's "quaint" or has "character" in this town dates from 1776.

At Chick & Ruth's, circa 1965, the character is thicker than the grease on the griddle. It's one of a kind, with its ghastly, wonderful, yellow and orange color scheme, the bar stools and ** counters which have been left just as Chick Levitt found them 28 years ago; the sandwiches named for politicians; the wall-to-wall scrapbook of memorabilia, and the cordoned-off "Governor's Office" booth where former governor Marvin Mandel breakfasts at 8:30 each morning.

Webster's calls "quaint" something whimsical, something unusual or old-fashioned in a pleasing way. If Chick & Ruth's doesn't fit that bill, then nothing in Annapolis does.

And unlike many of the shops and eateries that qualify as fitting the historic image Mr. Hammond et. al. are trying to project, it came by its quaintness naturally, not by design.

Mr. Levitt was looking to make a decent living, not create an institution, when he moved to Annapolis from Baltimore in 1965. He was broke. After running one "Cozy Musical Bar" on West Baltimore Street for eight years, he woke up one morning to find that all the other taverns in the area were gone, and so were his customers.

He had to borrow money to buy the little Annapolis sandwich shop, then called Milton's. Remembering Mr. Milton (that was his first name), who had named sandwiches after his children, Mr. Levitt decided to name sandwiches for pols. "I didn't even know who [the politicians] were to begin with," Mr. Levitt recalls. "Then all of a sudden I started learning that these people were, like, your senators and your congressmen!" From there, Chick & Ruth's evolved from just another lunch spot to every bit a local landmark as Charles Carroll's mansion and cobblestone streets.

The walls gradually became plastered with letters, newspaper clippings and photos of famous visitors (Marilyn Quayle, Janet Reno). Local pols such as Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Lt. Gov. Mickey Steinberg, Comptroller Louis Goldstein and Mr. Mandel became regulars. Quirky new traditions developed; since Operation Desert Storm, when Mr. Levitt decided it was time to show some respect for the country, everybody stands at 8:30 a.m. for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Chick & Ruth's has even acquired some national acclaim. Last year, after President Bill Clinton failed to respond to Mr. Levitt's letter asking what kind of a sandwich he preferred, talk shows from Miami to California called, Mr. Levitt says.

"And where else did you ever see a deli written up in National Geographic?" asks Mr. Mandel, referring to a 1988 piece on Annapolis which featured Chick & Ruth's.

Mr. Mandel, the only ex-politician besides Golda Meir, the late Israeli prime minister, who still enjoys the honor of having his own sandwich, has some pretty strong opinions about the furor over Mr. Levitt's neon sign.

"It's ridiculous," he says. "This man has been in business for 28 years, and I've never heard anybody complain about the sign, [which has also been there 28 years].

"Whether people like it or not, this city is known around the world as a tourist attraction . . . I could understand if everybody was going around in residential areas putting up signs. But this is a business area . . .

"I remember during my first year in the legislature you could HTC shoot a cannon off at the top of Main Street and not hit anybody. Now we've got a booming, thriving city that's a credit to Maryland. The history here is phenomenal. I don't know why anybody want to change that."

The City Council's proposal to make Mr. Levitt, who is 65, change his sign has upset him greatly. "I don't want any commotion," he says. But he loves his shop the way it is -- "I kiss the doorjamb when I walk in" -- and can't for the life of him see why he should have to change it.

"I could put ferns up, but that's not me," he says.

He could get a handsome, custom-carved sign made, but that's not Chick & Ruth's. The little neon fits just right.

And it doesn't make Annapolis "honky-tonk," as Mr. Hammond claims; Annapolis is a long, long way from that. It just makes it a real city, with more than one kind of history and more than one kind of charm.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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