A good waitress can make all the difference in a meal. A great waitress can bring customers back to a restaurant time and again.
A few waitresses transcend ordinary greatness and become something close to legends. Claudia Coffey was one. She died last year in a Baltimore County nursing home. But she lives on in an item that still appears on some menus around town - Coffey salad.
"Miss Coffey," as everyone called her, came to the Pimlico Restaurant from the old Horn & Horn across from the Gaiety Theatre downtown. She served several generations of customers at the Pimlico before the venerable restaurant closed its doors in 1991. Somewhere along the way, she developed a chopped salad she mixed and served herself. It became her signature.
You could order a Coffey salad at Harvey's at Green Spring Station before it closed, and it's listed now on the menu at DiPasquale's in Pikesville. You can also request it from the Classic Catering People.
But ask anyone who knew Miss Coffey and who ate the salad she mixed herself in her own well-wiped-but-never-washed wooden bowl with her very own garlic press that nobody else was allowed to use, and they'll likely tell you it's not the same. It wasn't even the same when the Pimlico's kitchen staff tried to duplicate the salad under her supervision.
"So many people in town have tried to copy it, but they miss," says Al Davis, a co-owner of the Pimlico. "It's usually too much vinegar."
The ingredients weren't unusual - iceberg lettuce, hard-boiled egg, onion, tomato, garlic, oregano, Parmesan cheese, anchovies, oil and vinegar. But they were put together in a way that made them memorable.
Lenny Kaplan, a Pimlico partner and, like Davis, a son-in-law of Pimlico's founder, says there was another ingredient, one that set the Coffey salad apart from all other chopped salads - "She used to make it with love."
Love and, judging from Kaplan's demonstration, a rhythmic mixing motion that ensured this would be no humdrum bowl of lettuce.
Some servers have "call customers," people who ask to be served by a particular waiter or waitress. Miss Coffey had a lot - "more than anyone in the history of this territory, in my opinion," Kaplan says.
"It was difficult on occasion to service the dining room because she was waiting on so many customers," he recalls. "You've got people waiting at the door for half an hour, and she wanted to make everybody's salad."
The kitchen would try to help things along by having ingredients ready for servers to mix. Miss Coffey shunned this shortcut. "She never used the kitchen's pre-chopped ingredients for her customers," Kaplan says. "It was all by feel, all by taste." And it epitomized for many customers and staff what good restaurant service is all about.
"If you knew the woman, you knew the salad, I think," Kaplan says. "She was so demanding of the kitchen for her customers."
She was also precise and immaculate. When she first came to the restaurant, she would arrive with her uniform pressed and starched, neatly hanging on a coat hanger - a practice that soon gave way to the Pimlico's more casual atmosphere, he says.
But one habit she never abandoned was the care with which she did her "side work" - cleaning and preparing her station for the next day's work. She would inevitably be the last person to leave each night.
"She had the same need my father had to please people," says Gail Kaplan, wife of Lenny and daughter of Leon Shavitz, who built the Pimlico into a successful restaurant.
"It was a favorite," Davis says of the salad. "I've watched her make it a thousand times, probably. ... The kitchen never quite came up to what she did.
"I'd like to taste one right now."
Makes 1 serving
1/2 head iceberg lettuce, chopped
1 slice onion, chopped
2 slices tomato, chopped
1/2 hard-boiled egg, chopped
1 clove garlic, put through garlic press
1 teaspoon oregano
3 heaping teaspoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 chopped anchovies
salad oil to taste
vinegar to taste
Combine first 8 ingredients in a bowl. Gradually mix in oil and vinegar to taste.
Note: This recipe is an approximation of the salad Claudia Coffey made and served at the Pimlico.