The pale yellow dining room walls are mum at Marconi's; heaven knows what memories they withhold. A pity for pursuit of the Charles and Judi Winner story, a sort of long-term love affair involving a man, a woman and a venerable place in town.
Who knows just how their first date there went 37 years ago, what they ordered and exactly what they said? What remain are no physical artifacts - not the check they paid, nor menu, nor matchbook - but the union sparked there and the evening's sketchy outlines. That night of December 1965 was cold. She wore blue. After dinner they went to a Baltimore Bullets basketball game. Three weeks later they were engaged to be married.
The romance continues this Friday, Valentine's Day, as the Winners - married 36 years and the parents of one grown son - once more take their seats at Marconi's, perhaps at table 14, Charles' favorite, in the far corner of the main dining room. Since they were married in 1966, they've spent many wedding anniversaries and about half their Valentine's Days at Marconi's.
"Marconi's has been our place when we want to be together," says Charles. "We don't need a crowd of people to have a good time because we enjoy being together. Marconi's makes that possible. They don't rush you out of there."
Says Judi: "It's almost like an old friend whenever you go to Marconi's."
Consistency is no hobgoblin for this couple. If you ask Charles how Marconi's menu has changed since 1965 he means no slight in saying: not so much. The restaurant at 106 W. Saratoga St., Marconi's address since it opened in 1920, is still the place for lobster Cardinale and veal scaloppine, sweetbreads and sole amandine. There remain the chopped salad and the ice cream sundae with Marconi's own chocolate sauce, much as the Winners have always found it.
With its white tablecloths, crystal chandeliers and tuxedoed waiters, Marconi's presents itself as something from another era. A 1979 Sun article called the place as "timeless as old money."
This speaks with particular effect to Charles, who only appears as a short, somewhat rotund fellow in glasses and gray hair who practices the law of estates and trusts. Within that Friar Tuckish frame burns a yen for the elegance of a Cary Grant or Robert Taylor, and the movies of the 1930s and '40s.
"If there was a restaurant in town where you had to wear a tuxedo to go into, I'd love it," says Charles, who says he has counted Marconi's among his favorite restaurants since he went there as a boy with his father in the late 1940s. Hence, he chose it for a first date with Judi.
"I'm a romantic. ... It's a rather intimate setting. The tables are large, but not so large that you can't reach over and hold hands." His favorite lyricist, Lorenz Hart, happens to have written My Funny Valentine. As the Winners sit in their den in Pikesville telling their story, their lives together emerge as an idealization suited to song.
"I always used to call Judi my '3-D Girl: my dearest, darling devil,' " says Charles.
Their story defies dating services that would match people on the basis of common interests. These two say they both like animals and music; otherwise they share little in the way of life pursuits.
He likes action movies, she likes "feel-good movies." He likes jazz, she's a classic rock 'n' roller. She loves to dance, he'd rather watch. He's out in the somber world of investments and financial legacies, she's never worked outside the home. He's the quiet, even-keeled provider, she's the ebullient spirit.
On their first meeting at Marconi's, Judi, who is now 58, says she was drawn to Charles, who is 63, for qualities she felt she didn't have: "I can be very flighty. He was just a real solid individual. He knew what he wanted. He was confident without arrogance. I'm very much a daddy's girl. I think I was looking for someone like my father."
She had just left Maryland Institute College of Art. He was home on leave from the Army and had gotten her telephone number from a college friend of his. Their first date, he says, only affirmed a judgment he'd already made.
"I always say I fell in love with her over the phone. She has such a beautiful voice," says Charles. "I've often told her I could sit and listen to her forever."
To enter their home and talk for two, three hours and more is to step into a large Hallmark Valentine's Day card, right down to the pastel shades. Judi prefers these in the paintings that she has made and displayed around the house: flowers and abstract bursts of color, mostly, light in palette and content, nothing to trouble a heart or mind.
"To me every day is a holiday with my wife," says Charles. "There's not a day that I don't call her two, three times a day to say 'I love you.' "
Judi wonders aloud more than once if her visitor doesn't find it all a bit too much, but she insists it's all for real. At least as real and as reliable as they have found Marconi's.
Their usual waiter, Ali Morsy, who has been there 22 years, knows Charles' drink: Glenlivet scotch with ice and a twist of lemon; and Judi's: Diet Coke. He knows their usual table and the range of their menu selections. Such regular customers, he says, keep the place afloat.
Even taking account of the general economic slowdown, Morsy says business at Marconi's is not what it was in the days when customers lined up out the door for a table.
When Baltimore Orioles principal owner Peter G. Angelos bought the restaurant two years ago, a representative of his real estate development company mentioned plans to move the place to one of Angelos' projects on Charles Street.
The general manager, Bassam Sara, says the move is still being discussed, but no clear plans have been made. Sara says the restaurant is facing decisions about what to keep and what to change. The steady customers are aging; what strikes them as reassuring consistency may seem to younger potential customers a stodgy throwback.
Charles will take that. He's as impressed now as he was when he first ate there as a boy. A menu from the 1940s shows that a few of the same items are still offered, including the signature dish, lobster Cardinale, a preparation of lobster and sherry cream sauce. The $28 entree is listed on the 1940s menu at $1.50.
On Valentine's Day, Charles says he'll probably order the lobster, depending on Morsy's recommendations. Or oysters Pauline, another cream sauce dish that's been offered as a seafood special as long as he can remember.
Judi says she'll lean toward the veal scaloppine or the broiled crab cakes. And the sundae with Marconi's renowned chocolate sauce, like one she remembers from that first date, which happened also to be her first time in Marconi's.
That "won me over instantly," she says. The chocolate sauce, she means, but she might as well be referring to the man. She cannot recall saying "yes" to Charles' marriage proposal, conveyed all of about three weeks later, somewhere near the corner of Fayette and Liberty streets. As she recalls, she probably answered the question with a question: "Really?"
Apparently, so. Really.
"If we lost it all, we'd still have each other," says Charles. "Maybe we couldn't afford to go to Marconi's. Maybe we'd go to McDonald's. If we didn't go to the Mechanic, we'd rent a movie. But we'd have each other."