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Cafe recalls Miller Bros. Restaurant


No skin. No fat. The four plump chicken breasts browned up nicely -- and healthfully -- on the smokeless indoor grill at Samm's juice and sandwich bar in Towson's Merritt Athletic Club.

The chicken, marinated in garlic, herbs and lemon juice, is delicious in a sandwich with Muenster cheese and bacon, but it pales beside the culinary grandeur of Miller Brothers Restaurant -- for a half century "The Place to Eat" in Baltimore and now memorialized on the wall at Samm's.

Samm's is an exercise in Baltimore nostalgia as well as a working snack bar. It commemorates Miller Brothers, a fixture at 119 W. Fayette St. until 1963, and the late Sam Roggio, its last head chef, said Larry Roggio, Samm's proprietor and Mr. Roggio's grandson.

In its heyday, Miller Brothers' menus featured, along with its routine fare of sour beef, pot roast, steak and Maryland fried chicken, the exotic dishes that made the restaurant famous and showcased its chefs' talents with oysters, crab and lobster; squab, terrapin and green sea turtle; pheasant, black bear and reindeer.

Miller Brothers closed in 1963 to make way for part of Charles Center and although the name lived on for a while in other downtown locations, it never was the same, Mr. Roggio said.

Many a political deal was hatched over a plate of oysters at the Miller Brothers raw bar and visiting show people dined there regularly, as did businessmen who could afford to linger over lunch.

Visitors commented on the slogans painted on the dark woodwork below the ceiling, announcing with civic pride that Baltimore, among other things, was a gynecology capital and a world button center.

For holidays and special events, Miller Brothers ordered lavishly illustrated menu covers. Its familiar day-to-day cover logo was a picture of a lobster and a glass of wine.

Sixteen menu covers, from 1932 to 1959, hang on the Samm's wall, part of a collection Sam Roggio amassed over the years -- which includes an advertisement from The Sun of March 29, 1962, in which Miller Brothers announced its 50th anniversary as "The Place to Eat -- The House of Liberal Portions."

The menu for George Washington's birthday in 1932 is the earliest on display; a full dinner cost about $1.50. Others commemorate such local events as the 1948 Preakness; the 1950 opening of Friendship International Airport, now Baltimore-Washington International Airport; the 1952 dedication of the first Bay Bridge; and the 1940 Navy-Notre Dame and 1955 Navy-Pitt football games at Memorial Stadium.

The cover for April 6, 1942, at the height of World War II, featured a soldier, a sailor and a Marine marching together, beneath the legend, "We're Backing Them Up."

In a wall case is one of the restaurant's blue- and gold-banded HTC dinner plates and some of its distinctive glassware -- wine glasses with colored stems, blue and red wine carafes and commemorative glasses.

The case also contains three of the crumb scrapers waiters used to remove the vestiges of some of Baltimore's most noteworthy dining experiences, and several matchboxes that announce Miller Brothers' policy: "No music, no dancing, no frills. The value is on the plate."

The Roggios, Larry, 34, and Mary Kay, 36, met in 1988 while working in the banquet department of the Towson Sheraton. Larry had learned the trade working as a prep cook with his grandfather in the 1970s when the Miller Brothers name was moved to the downtown Hilton (now the Omni) hotel.

Mrs. Roggio had worked for the previous snack bar proprietor at the athletic club. They said they decided to try a business of their own after the former operator closed the snack bar the previous summer and wanted to give it up completely.

They set up four tables, with bright cloths of green and white checks, a pool table, a stereo system and a television, and set out to attract the lunch crowd from surrounding businesses as well as among club members, including some outside catering.

Although they have a complimentary membership in the athletic club, the Roggios said they are too busy working to workout.

The menu includes two of Sam Roggio's specialties, his grandson said -- thick chili, with red kidney beans and heavy on the spices, and shrimp salad, with the secret ingredients being big shrimp and fresh lemon juice.

"Sam would have loved it here," Mr. Roggio said. "I can see him now. He would have been sitting up at night working up a special for me."

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