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Days of crabs on the city's waterfront

The Baltimore Sun

The death earlier this month of Karen Naomi Connolly-Lawless brought Connolly's Seafood House, her family's old Pratt Street waterfront restaurant, back into the news.

And then a few days later, Jim Genthner, a longtime Northwood resident and connoisseur of everything pre-1950 Baltimore, called to share a few memories of Connolly's.

"I remember we used to go Connolly's, which was a pure Baltimore restaurant before all the Inner Harbor puff arrived, and get what's called a Baltimore hard fry," said Genthner.

What Genthner is talking about is a Chesapeake Bay country crustacean curiosity not often found on menus these days.

The recipe is actually pretty simple. A hard crab is stuffed with a crab cake, then dipped in self-rising flour and deep-fried.

"I loved the crab cakes and seafood platters. It wasn't gourmet fare, but it was good and tasty," he said.

Thomas J. Connolly, who had been a partner in the old R.J. McAllister seafood business, opened a restaurant on Pier 5 Pratt Street in 1921, after the death of the company's founder.

To ensure that the crabs and oysters he served in his restaurant were fresh, Connolly made daily voyages across the bay in the William J. Brennan Jr., an oyster boat, to Crisfield and St. Michaels in search of the finest seafood available. During the summer months, he added plump Eastern Shore watermelons to his bountiful seaborne cargo.

After his death in 1961, his son Sterling L. Connolly and his wife, Naomi Bond Connolly, took over operation of the business. Their daughter joined them in the 1970s after her mother became ill.

For decades before Phillips Seafood arrived at Harborplace in 1980, it was the city's only truly waterfront seafood house.

At Pier 5, its official address was 710 E. Pratt St., even though no one ever called it that; it jutted out on a wooden pier over fetid harbor waters.

It was an improbable sight and, by the 1970s, it consisted of a narrow, light green corrugated metal building that hadn't seen a painter's brush since Wendell L. Willkie ran for president on the Republican ticket in 1940.

Improvements arrived in the 1970s, when the old hand-lettered sign in black letters on a white background was replaced with a zippy electric sign that had "Connolly's" in jazzy script, followed in regular lettering with "Pier 5 Pratt St. Seafood Restaurant," mounted on the roof.

In addition to the aroma of fried foods being pumped into the air from the restaurant's kitchen fans, the aroma of fresh lumber from the Carolinas sitting on barges of the Norfolk, Baltimore & Carolina Line awaiting transshipment reminded visitors that this was the last vestige of the days when this part of town was a working harbor.

Old harbor buildings began being cleared for Harborplace, a World Trade Center and the National Aquarium.

Because the Chardonnization of Inner Harbor East hadn't quite reached Connolly's, it gallantly soldiered on for two more decades after its 100-year-old lease was canceled by the city in 1971.

"You have to see Connolly's to believe it. One look at the exterior - peeling paint, dim lights and all - and you may want to drive on by," wrote The Sun's food critic, Elizabeth Large, in 1975. "Inside is better, but not much: a cracked floor, institutional green walls, long rows of tables."

Walls conveyed a maritime theme and were covered with shells, nets, ship's wheels, framed marine knots, and paintings of windjammers making heavy going as they plowed through storm-tossed seas with billowing sails.

"And there's a parrot [loose] which sounded as if he wanted to throw up," observed Large.

"There was even a dog who with the parrot was the restaurant's mascots until they were evicted by the Health Department," recalled Genthner. "There were some watercolor paintings of old Baltimore scenes by the late Charlie Moss on the walls and of the old Red Rocket streetcars that went to Dundalk."

Restaurant loyalists included then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who regularly dined there every Sunday evening with his mother, Tululu Irene Schaefer. He'd return on Tuesdays to dine on ham and cabbage, which was the day's special.

"Those were the days before mayors needed bodyguards, and I often saw Schaefer bringing his mother there to have dinner," Genthner recalled.

"He sat unobtrusively in at a corner table facing the wall. No big deal. He was just another customer."

Back in the days when the B & O Railroad's Pratt Street switcher coursed a network of street trackage delivering freight cars in the dead of night to local businesses and warehouses, rail crews would often park their trains in the middle of Pratt Street and go into Connolly's for a meal, according to Genthner.

Connolly's seemed to be open around the clock - it later cut back its hours to 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. - and it wasn't uncommon for the restaurant's kitchen to steam 10 bushels of crabs in the course of an evening and serve 700 diners on a summer weekend night.

The end came in the summer of 1991 when the restaurant suddenly closed without fanfare for the $164 million Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration that claimed its site.

"Longtime Baltimoreans said they were shocked and saddened to learn that the so-ugly-it's-beautiful eatery, where stars rubbed elbows with sailors, had finally succumbed to urban redevelopment," reported The Sun at the time.



Find Fred Rasmussen's column archive at baltimoresun .com/backstory

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