4th down for Colts' haunt

The Baltimore Sun

Here at the Club 4100, history covers the dark paneled walls.

There's Johnny Unitas, not looking like such a big guy in high school - and a hundred more pictures of the Colts quarterback. Don Shula with his son, Dave, both in football gear. Al Sanders and the rest of the WJZ-TV clan in a promotional shot.

Photos of local celebrities, athletes and coaches, many known to the current crop of kids only from Topps cards, comfort the old-timers at the basement bar and restaurant in working-class Brooklyn Park. Far fewer pictures hang of the present Ravens and Orioles. Other than the big-screen TVs and Keno, the place is the same now as in decades past.

Once a Colts' hangout, where players were treated like ordinary guys and generations of families dined, celebrated special occasions and jammed the annual Easter Sunday Festival, the 4100 now has an uncertain future.

On Thursday, Club 4100 - which takes its name from its address at 4118 4th St. - will be auctioned. Everything is going, even the photos and the Unitas handprint in concrete outside. Even the parking lot.

What will become of it will depend on the new owner. Auctioneer Andrew L. Billig, like others, says that a savvy buyer could spruce the club up a bit while building on what's here.

At the northern tip of Anne Arundel County, it sits so close to the city line that the fire hydrant some 25 feet from its front walk belongs to the city, but the one across the street is the county's.

Retirement beckons, the owners say. Manny Spanomanolis, 66, wants to be with his family in Greece. His kid brother and partner, Dino, 62, unable to work for the past four years because of an accident, moved out of town.

He still stops in sometimes, and the two greet customers by their first names, often with a hug.

"It's really one of those places that is part of a neighborhood - they don't build places like that anymore," says University of Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams, who is honored with a Terps-red plaque at the end of the bar.

He has spoken for the last dozen Decembers to University of Maryland basketball fans in the banquet room. The Baltimore Area Terrapin Club grills him, and on his way and out, he pores over the photos in the bar.

So regularly were the Colts there that the tower at the old Friendship Airport, now BWI Marshall, used to call the club to say the team was about to land from away games, warning them to get steaks on the grill, Manny Spanomanolis says.

Late one night, 19 hungry Colts players arrived at Club 4100 from the airport. A complaint that the restaurant was serving alcohol after 2 a.m. brought Anne Arundel County police knocking on the door.

"The police said, 'We'd like to come in,' and I said OK. They see all of the Colts, and the police, they stayed and stayed, and they got everyone's autograph," he recalls. Officers left about 5:30 a.m.

And then there is the steak story. Only two people ever devoured the 64-ounce family steak alone, both Colts from the 1960s and 1970s. Mike Curtis ate a salad with his. But Billy Ray Smith also downed two baked potatoes. And he wasn't finished.

"He asked, 'You got any pie?'" Spanomanolis says. Apple pie it was.

Sports and community merge in a yarn that opens after World War II, when South Baltimore restaurateur George "Pop" Coutros moved into a house at Edison and Fourth. He dug out beneath it and soon turned his basement party room into a restaurant designed as a nice, affordable place for emerging middle-class families. It opened in January 1959.

Coutros wanted to swim as exercise for his back - he'd had an accident years earlier - so he dug again, this time in the backyard. He offered use of the pool to local disabled children. And he asked Unitas, whom he knew, to visit with the youngsters.

The quarterback came by, played with the children who didn't know his name, and ate steak. Unitas brought his teammates, Gino Marchetti and Andy Nelson among them, and soon Club 4100 became a Colts haunt.

Shortly after opening, Coutros began the Easter Sunday party for the disabled children. Whenever Unitas was in town - even on crutches - he came. As did the Oriole Bird, Superman and every aspiring politician in the area as the bash grew.

To this day, no political hopeful dares miss the Easter festival, where 1,000 potential voters plus youngsters fill Edison Street, downing 650 pounds of candy and taking home 90 dozen colored eggs.

The Baltimore Brooklyn Lions Club has long provided labor. Members take hundreds of free photos of children with the Easter Bunny, said former president Clement Kusiak.

"My son, Greg, is 33, and I used to take him there for Easter to ride the ponies," said retired state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno of Brooklyn Park, who provided Senate resolutions to present to couples celebrating wedding anniversaries at the restaurant.

"It's heartbreaking," state Sen. George W. Della Jr. said of the likely sale, as he recalled huddling with Democrats at many a gathering there in the 1970s and early 1980s when he was on the Baltimore City Council.

The Spanomanolis brothers, Greek immigrants, bought the 4100 in 1968. They covered the pool with a banquet hall that clubs have booked into 2008. Unitas became a friend of the brothers, as he was of the Coutros family.

The brothers stuck to their predecessor's mission of serving traditional, hearty American fare - lamb chops, veal cutlets, spaghetti and meatballs. A New York strip steak dinner can be had for $17.95.

Patrons can eat at the U-shaped bar surrounded by about 20 stools or at the tables and red-upholstered benches and chairs seating more than twice that many. It would all seem dark, but for all those pictures blanketing the walls and the TV images.

More upscale is an adjacent narrow dining room with blond paneling, a few portraits and pink upholstered seats. Another room, which has a similar decor, is sometimes used for private dinners, while the banquet room can seat 150.

The clientele is mature, many of them graying - it's not the sort of place where birthday revelers do 21 shots of whiskey. Nobody can recall a fight ever taking place, either.

Joseph Bartlinski, a chiropractor from Linthicum who grew up watching Colts players devour meals there, now goes to the 4100 with his wife on Ravens home game Sundays, meeting friends before or after the game. Or to watch an away game.

"I meet friends from childhood there," he said, "on purpose and bumping into them."

Ned Carey, an Anne Arundel County school board member from the neighborhood, said his first date with his wife was at the 4100 Club.

"I remember because she took the onions out of her salad. I guess she wanted kissing-sweet breath," he recalled. "She no longer takes the onions out. We've been married for 15 years."

Last week, Orioles scout Dean Albany took Matt Wieters here after the O's No. 1 draft pick signed for $6 million.

"Mr. Manny made us a big lunch. Matt was pretty amazed at what he saw on the walls there," said Albany, 44, who grew up seeing Unitas there and remains a frequent customer.

Devotees say the 4100's success is wrapped up in a comfort that goes beyond food and sports to the relationship with the community.

"I don't know how much someone could change it," said Kusiak, the Lion. "The way it is is what draws people."


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