Quirky menu, customers lend charm to Marconi's


I DOUBT that even the weekly stalwarts at Maison Marconi restaurant can recite all four varieties of potatoes that never leave its exalted menu.

To wit -- au gratin, julienne, hash brown and lyonnaise.

Never mashed or baked. Ever. Ever.

News that Marconi's has been sold and will one day leave 106 W. Saratoga St. will surely rattle the people who view its premises with a reverence reserved for Palm Sunday, Green Mount Cemetery and the memory of Cardinal Gibbons.

Down to serving the creamed spinach in cereal bowls, it is the restaurant where the Marconi way goes unchecked by conventionality and what others may consider normal restaurant practice.

There are those who just don't buy into the Marconi mystique. The fare isn't cheap. The dishes are fattening, old-fashioned and require exploration.

Some people feel that you have to be initiated here by old family or friends and that newcomers weren't welcomed.

The restroom plumbing is antediluvian. And it is not a dress-down address.

At first reading, the menu is more difficult, with more choices, than an SAT exam.

And yet, it is my idea of destination dining.

I happen to delight in that grand old dining room approached by worn marble steps and a polished brass rail.

The place has an infectious way of balancing a formal -- if idiosyncratic -- way of delivering food with an understated manner of being gracious.

One day when I forgot a jacket, one was supplied. One day I ran out of money. No problem. Bring it up later. One day my late mother grew overly enthusiastic when a waiter presented a full bowl of chocolate sauce. She dropped an ash from her Lucky Strike squarely in it. A fresh bowl appeared.

The Marconi's customers are half the fun. They constitute a fine show of Baltimore people theater.

I could always count on seeing my trusted friend Charles Quandt at his east-wall table whenever I stopped in for lunch. Charles was perhaps the most dignified lawyer I've ever known. (He wore silk hose to the end.) For decades he represented the Johns Hopkins University.

He loved Marconi's and ate there every day, including some Saturdays, from the 1930s until he died in the 1990s. Charles, despite his affection for the place, could be as tough on the food as any courtroom adversary. He'd send rockfish back to the kitchen. Ditto if the julienne potatoes were soggy.

The ice cream that supported the chocolate sauce wasn't as good as it once was, he contended.

And when he died, the restaurant's owner, Ilene Booke, sat in the upper pew of Emmanuel Episcopal Church among Charles' mourners.

I think of the evening not so long ago that I was into a couple of drinks at the place when the waiter appeared and was ready to take down the main order.

I said I'll have the sweetbreads.

The waiter, in a voice that was both self-mocking and haughty, said, "Will that be sweetbreads Sarah Bernhardt, or creamed, broiled or bordelaise?"

Now confronted by four choices, I inquired about the Sarah Bernhardt sweetbreads. Those, he informed me, contained ham and chicken livers -- "All the organ meats possible."

That's for me.

Somehow I fear that as Peter Angelos uproots Marconi's and moves it to a new address, the soup bowls might disappear. Pleasing the Charles Quandts of Baltimore is no easy trick. And yet, where would Baltimore be without a place where they serve chicken a la king five days a week, vacations excepted?

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