Obrycki's restaurant is 50 years old this summer. During this half-century, glamorous movie stars, famous athletes and just plain old eaters have made it a point to stop in for crabs at the East Baltimore landmark.
Opened in 1944 by the Obrycki family, the rowhouse restaurant was sold in 1976 to Richard and Rose Cernak. Ten years later the Cernak family -- parents Richard and Rose, daughters Cindy and Cheri and sons Rick and Rob -- moved the restaurant a few doors down East Pratt Street to larger, newer quarters. Now hanging on the polished walls of the restaurant's waiting area are framed clippings from the nation's food press. Stories from Bon Appetit, Travel & Leisure, Food & Wine and Gourmet tell how correspondents for those magazines have come to Obrycki's, cracked crab and left happy.
Recently I sat down with Rose and Cheri Cernak and listened to their tales -- some funny, some not -- of restaurant life. While the stories dealt with Obrycki's, some, it seemed, could have been about any restaurant. Here are a few of them:
The stainer. A few months ago a well-dressed man showed up at the restaurant and claimed that one of the waiters had spilled something on his suit a few nights earlier. He presented a receipt for $5 from a dry cleaner. He asked to be reimbursed.
The woman working at the front of the restaurant thought about simply giving the man $5 from petty cash, but before handing out the cash, checked with the boss, Rose.
Rose remembered that 10 years ago a well-dressed man had made a similar claim. She remembered the fellow couldn't describe the waiter who supposedly spilled food on him. Moreover, she recalled that the man had ticked off the names of several Baltimore restaurants that supposedly had given him $5 for stains caused by their waiters. Rose thought it was curious that so many waiters had spilled food on the man, and that the cleaning bill was always $5. Sure enough, when she questioned her waiters, none reported spilling anything. So she sent the man on his way without any money.
Now, 10 years later, the guy was back, probably figuring that chances were good that the restaurant had new owners. Instead of a new owner, the man ended up facing an old nemesis.
"I told him you didn't get away with it 10 years ago, and you aren't going to get away with it now," Rose said.
The stainer turned on his well-heeled shoes, muttered an obscenity and walked out the door.
There was the night actor Danny DeVito lost a fan because he had kids. When a female customer heard that DeVito, who was in Baltimore for the filming of "Tin Men," was eating in the restaurant, she asked to be seated near the star.
She got her wish, but instead of being elated, she left the restaurant in a huff. DeVito had his children with him and the kids made a commotion as they hammered crabs with mallets. The noise and kids were a turnoff, the woman reported as she left the restaurant.
"But you asked to be seated near him," Rose said to the angry woman. "You didn't tell me," the woman replied, "that he had children."
There are the "crab emergency" nights at the restaurant. On these nights, when the supply of steamed crabs is running low, the staff counts unfed customers. Figuring four crabs per customer, the staff tries to approximate when the supply will run out. Customers waiting to be seated as well as those holding reservations for later in evening are warned that by the time they dine, the steamed crabs may be gone.
The reaction to this news varies, the Cernaks said. Most folks are grateful for the warning and understand that crab shortages are part of the business. But a few go ballistic. One customer, Cheri recalled, launched into a tirade, saying that Obrycki's without crabs was like the sea with salt, or a brewery running out of beer. Cheri listened to the customer complain for a while, then spoke up. "I told him that if the worst thing that ever happened to him was not being able to eat crabs one night, then he was a pretty lucky fellow," she recalled.
Speechless, he looked at her for long time, she recalled. Finally, he nodded in agreement. "You're right," he said, and ordered crab cakes.
There are the occasional customers who try to run out without paying their check. Sometimes they are caught right away. That happened the time a man tried to run out on his family's check, after first sending his wife and child out to fetch their car. The husband was stopped at the door of the restaurant. The wife drove away. At the husband's suggestion, the restaurant staff phoned his in-laws. His mother-in-law said go ahead and send the bum to jail. The father-in-law, however, came and paid the tab.
And then there are the near-disasters. Such as the day last summer when the restaurant's truck, carrying crabs to a New York shindig, broke down on the New Jersey Turnpike. For much of the afternoon it looked as if the crowd of New Yorkers was going to have to be called and told that the crab feast at the James Beard House was canceled. But at the last moment, a truck part arrived. The truck was back on the road. The crabs arrived in Gotham and the feast went off with nary a hitch. It was just another day in the restaurant business.