The matzo ball soup orders will just have to wait, along with the pastrami sandwiches, the house special "coddies" and the camaraderie that were all parts of the Suburban House Restaurant on Reisterstown Road. A fire there late Wednesday shut down the restaurant and with it a chunk of Pikesville's social life.

"This was like the neighborhood 'Cheers'," said Connie Benny, who has been working there as a server for about 10 years. "Everybody knew everybody else. It was like a big social gathering."

She was standing behind the restaurant Thursday afternoon as fire investigators and insurance estimators went through the mess that remained after the two-alarm fire burned out a storage area and left the restaurant heavily damaged by smoke and water. The back lot was strewn with charred chairs, steam trays, the remains of a heating duct.

Customers had been turning up all day, having heard the bad news or showing up as usual for a meal only to find the front windows boarded up and a heap of blackened debris on the sidewalk.

Alan and Lois Elkin, co-owners of Advance Business Systems, got the word from their daughter while in Ocean City. "We've been there so often there's a regular table waiting for us," Lois Elkin said.

Sherrie Becker, executive director of the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce, said she reserves a special place for the restaurant's matzo ball soup, which she considers "the best in town," and the "coddies" - cakes of cod and potato that go nicely with crackers and mustard.

It's the sort of place where you'd expect to see customers moving from table to table, chatting as if it were a social club. For elderly customers in particular, it was a social lifeline.

"They go to the doctors, they go to Suburban House," co-owner Mark Horowitz said. "We love our elderly clientele."

His cell phone kept ringing every few minutes. He and his partner, Joseph Stowe, figured they must have had 200 calls - from customers, from businesspeople up and down Reisterstown Road and elsewhere, asking if they could help.

"The outpouring of concern has been unbelievable," Horowitz said. He and Stowe looked exhausted, having not slept much since the fire broke out about 5 p.m. Wednesday. There were about 15 customers and 20 employees in the restaurant, he said.

Soon after black smoke was spotted rolling out of the storage area, everyone hurried out. No one was hurt. In about 30 minutes, firefighters had extinguished the worst of it, said Elise Armacost, spokesperson for the Baltimore County Fire Department. She said investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the fire.

Loyal customers can take heart: the restaurant owners - who bought the place in 1984 from the brothers Sidney and Henry Cohen, who opened in the mid-1960s - intend to be reopen. "Definitely, we'll be back," Stowe said. "We're an institution."

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