Oprah ate the fried chicken. Howard Cosell came for the breakfast specials. Katharine Hepburn stopped by in scuffed tennis shoes. And the Diner guys, once they outgrew french fries and gravy at the Hilltop Diner, switched their allegiance to the Cross Keys deli.
For two decades, the famous noshed with the ordinary at the Village Food Center in North Baltimore's Village of Cross Keys.
Retired schoolteachers grabbed a sandwich there after a game of golf. Smartly dressed shoppers took a break from browsing at Nan Duskin and Jones & Jones Inc. Families stood in line for Sunday brunch.
But all good things come to an end, even the mouth-watering cold beef, the hand-cut Western fries and the industrial-sized pans of macaroni and cheese that helped make the eatery into a Baltimore institution.
The Village Food Center, a full-service grocery, deli, bakery and cafe, is closing in two weeks. Its owners, Irv Falk and Morris Tossman, say they're ready to retire, and their lease ends Sept. 16.
Even more famous than its fried chicken was the deli's congenial, laid-back atmosphere. This was a neighborhood hangout where people were likely to run into their tennis partners, best friends and business associates. It was a place where people felt equally comfortable in their oldest jeans or a Donna Karan dress.
"This really is the meeting place," said Carol Belaga, a saleswoman at Nan Duskin who made one last stop to pick up groceries this week. "It was the heart of Cross Keys."
The shelves in the grocery section are mostly bare. The sweet shop and bakery are empty. A few lone coffee beans remain in the Hazelnut Cream and Mocha Java bins.
For Irv Falk and Morris Tossman, it's been a bittersweet week. They built up a grocery business over 35 years, starting the chain of Eddie's grocery stores with the late Eddie Gordon, then selling out their shares in 1974 to open the Village Food Center. Now they're standing side-by-side selling their last boxes of spaghetti, their last cartons of milk.
"I've had many good years here. This place was like a family," said Mr. Falk, 65.
But after a difficult year during which he suffered some health problems, Mr. Falk says he's ready to retire. His partner, the uncle of his wife, Bernice, already was semi-retired. And Mr. Falk says he wants to take it easy, play a little golf and spend "quality time with my wife."
Mr. Tossman, 76, returned from Tamarac, Fla., to be with his partner at the end.
"It isn't easy to see it go after all these years. The hardest part really is saying goodbye to my employees and my customers," he said.
All week long, deli regulars and customers from bygone years have stopped by to wish Mr. Falk and Mr. Tossman good luck. Most have lingered for a while to sip one last cup of coffee and savor the atmosphere.
Walter Coleman, a real estate lawyer in Baltimore, chatted with Ralph Banner next to one of the big windows. "It's like a sports team. You have a place for it in your heart. When it leaves, it's painful," said Mr. Banner, a bodyguard for Boogie Weinglass, the multimillionaire owner of Merry-Go-Round shops of "Diner" fame.
Some in the clique of Baltimoreans popularized in the 1982 movie of the same name found a new hangout at the deli years ago. Mr. Weinglass, Chip Silverman, who wrote the book "Diner Guys," Alan Charles, WJZ-TV's Richard Sher and others would meet Saturday afternoons to grab a bite and have a sarcastic ribbing session.
"What you didn't get in quantity in your sandwich, you got in
conversation," Mr. Sher said yesterday.
For residents of the apartments and townhomes at Cross Keys, the closing of the deli and grocery also means the end of a rare service. The shop would deliver groceries and full meals -- a bonus that elderly residents especially enjoyed.
"There's not a day that I didn't run in there," said Essie Levin, a saleswoman at Caprice, a women's store in the village shopping center.
Maggie Monen, who has lived for 18 years in Cross Keys and also works at Caprice, said, "You could rely on them. Even in the middle of a snowstorm, they managed to open."
The Rouse Co. developed the Cross Keys complex of residences and offices surrounding a village center with shops in 1964. Ten years later, Cross Keys expanded, and Mr. Falk and Mr. Tossman opened their food store.
Now the company is seeking another tenant to take over the 9,903-square-foot storefront with the huge glass windows that look out on an airy patio filled with flower pots and tables with awnings. There are several prospective tenants, but no definite lease yet, said Joan Davidson, a Rouse Co. marketing manager.
Mr. Falk says he had no chance to sell the business because he decided to give it up just as the second 10-year lease was coming to an end.
Residents, shoppers and celebrities alike agreed that the closing of the deli will leave more than an empty space at the center of Cross Keys.
State Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, a Democrat who represents Northern Baltimore, remembered watching children swarm into the deli to get autographs from baseball players. Visiting teams used to stay at the Cross Keys Inn before the new ballpark opened.
Over the years, many of the rich and famous stopped at the deli. Oprah Winfrey, who lived at Cross Keys when she worked as a reporter at Channel 13, used to drop by for the fried chicken. Long after she became a TV celebrity, she would visit the deli just to say hello to her friends behind the counter.
The late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, singer Ella Fitzgerald and baseball player Reggie Jackson came to the deli. So did Mr. Cosell, who ate two meals a day there during the Preakness, and Ms. Hepburn, who visited five years ago.
And so did Bennett Gold, 74, and Herbert Bernhardt, 79, who taught together at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and stayed close friends after they retired. "When we were walking in, I noticed the corner was empty, and then I found out," Mr. Gold said. "I do not understand. Does the mayor know this is happening? He should know. This is an institution. It has the best fried chicken in town. It has Nova, not lox. Everybody came here."
Mr. Bernhardt admonished, "Not everybody, but a lot of people. This is very sad."
"It's the passing of an era," Mr. Gold said. "It's the death of a landmark."