Serving the last tray of steamed crabs; Essex restaurant closes after 54 years; site to house strip mall


As a teen-ager, Michael Pangalis fulfilled a childhood dream, running away from home to become a clown in the circus.

But his parents had other ideas. They drove nonstop from their Essex home to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Sarasota, Fla., grabbed their son and said, "Michael, you're going to run the restaurant."

"And so I ran the restaurant," Pangalis said yesterday, sitting at one of his tables drinking black coffee. "Now, I don't run the restaurant."

After 54 years, Pangalis and his family will serve their final Greek salad and the last pile of steamed crabs today at his A-1 Crab Haven at Old Eastern Avenue and Stemmers Run Road.

A sign outside the white stone landmark eatery sadly announces, "The end is near."

Pangalis recently sold his restaurant and the 3 acres on which it sits for more than $2 million. The buyer, he said, is a developer who will build a strip mall as part of the east side's ambitious revitalization program.

Included in the deal is Pangalis' restaurant, his brick home and a swath of concrete and asphalt where the Thunderbird Drive-In, another eastern Baltimore County landmark, once stood. The Pangalis family owned it all.

"It's a happy time, and it's a sad time," said Valli Reid, Pangalis' daughter, who will work at the A-1 until the end. "I started here picking crabs when I was 10. We met so many wonderful people."

The Pangalis crab seasoning was a concoction of gastronomical beauty, the secrets of which will remain guarded by the family.

Evidence of its appeal can be found in the list of clients who frequented the restaurant over the years: Lynn Swann, the professional football player-turned-announcer; former professional boxer Archie Moore; politicians, including Spiro Agnew; and sportswriters, racetrack players, surgeons and blue-collar guys off the middle shift at the nearby steel and automobile plants.

Even an entire baseball team.

"The Philadelphia Phillies really liked our crabs and would rent a bus, come down here and eat and drink," Pangalis said.

The collection departs

As part of an informal soiree today and tonight, Pangalis' clown collection -- more than 1,000 paintings, figurines and collectibles gathered from around the world by the restaurateur's friends, and which decorate the bar -- will be auctioned off. Longtime friends will fill the restaurant's 25 linen-covered tables; stories will be swapped, goblets hoisted in toasts.

Tomorrow, Mike Pangalis, 66, will think about buying a waterfront condominium. Instead of tending to customers, he will start thinking about fishing, golfing and placing a few $2 wagers at the race track.

Closing foreseen

The closing of the A-1 -- always recognizable because of the 15-foot-long maroon canopy leading to its front door -- has been in sight for some time, as the neighborhood has gradually deteriorated.

"We would draw lots of our customers from Pikesville and Reisterstown," said Helen Baranowski, the A-1's hostess for 21 years. "But in the last couple of years, it turned bad. Customers were afraid on the parking lot; mean strangers were coming in."

Pangalis' father, Michael Sr., ran a successful restaurant in Quantico, Va., during World War II. He closed it in 1945, moved to Essex and purchased 3 acres at what was then Josenhans Corner, site of a major fresh produce market and a reference point for people driving to local beaches.

"My father opened the A-1 in 1946; we all worked in it, learned the business," Pangalis said. "I took over in 1960. I really wanted to be a clown, I had seen them in circuses and thought they were beautiful. But I was lucky and found something else where I was happy."

From that day until just a few years ago, Pangalis worked from 9 a.m. until 2 a.m., seven days a week.

The Thunderbird Drive-In, owned by his cousin Mark, opened in 1957 and became a distinctive slice of Americana: a drive-in circled by hot Chevrolets and Dodges, the drivers squealing their tires and revving powerful engines to impress the girls.

"I wish I had all the rubber on the lot where that place once was," Pangalis said, laughing. He remembers seeing cars backed up for a mile or more, waiting to make their entrance into the Thunderbird lot and begin a night to remember.

The success of Pangalis' restaurant rests on the blue crab, once taken almost exclusively from the Chesapeake Bay, but now also caught in waters off Louisiana, Texas and South Carolina.

"I can't tell the difference after they're cooked," he said. "And did you ever notice, you can eat a steamed crab right out of the shell, it has its own taste. You can't do that with lobster, you need butter."

As a reminder of another time, Pangalis pulled out a flier from 1959 announcing A-1's summer-long potluck sale, when the restaurant sold large steamed crabs for $3.49 a dozen.

Those days are gone. After tonight, the A-1, Mike Pangalis, and his clown collection will be, too.

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