Shelley Howell has undertaken a brave mission. She has written a 107-page book that revisits the mostly closed Baltimore restaurants of the past 50 years. She includes recipes and suggests that home cooks could duplicate the storied dishes of another time.
“I can’t be the only one who misses these foods,” said Howell, the author of “Dining Down Memory Lane.”
She tells of her first encounter with a fancy Baltimore restaurant — the Chesapeake, at Charles and Lanvale streets. That night — she was sure it was a Saturday because the place was crowded and there was live piano music — she encountered crab imperial. Dining out afterward was never quite the same.
This is a book about the memory of the illusive taste of dishes recalled from a distance of years. She lists the Chesapeake’s recipe — a formula that involves three pounds of lump crab meat, a cup of mayonnaise and other ingredients. She goes on to give other crab imperial dishes — from the John Eager Howard Room in the Hotel Belvedere, at the venerable Haussner’s in Highlandtown. One uses capers — the others do not — and two incorporate Worcestershire sauce.
I have personally found it difficult to reproduce a beloved restaurant’s specialties. But Howell lists some Baltimore knockout dishes. Under salads, she divulges recipes for chicken salad, deviled eggs and tomato aspic at the Woman’s Industrial Exchange, the Marconi chopped salad, shrimp salad at the Golden Arm as well as the Hutzler department store version from its Towson Valley View Room, and Danny’s Salad Beatrice.
Salad Beatrice, named for restaurateur Danny Dickman’s wife, is a watercress, endive and mushroom dish. The recipe was preserved thanks to a 1976 article in The Evening Sun. There are also other Dickman treats — his baked shad stuffed with roe, steak Diane, crabe en chemise crab crepes, sole Louis XV. The author was lucky enough to have been taken to this Charles Street restaurant for her 21st birthday.
So many of these dishes, and the restaurants that served them, were extensions of the personalities of their owner-chefs. Danny Dickman cossetted his patrons with rich dishes. I interviewed him 30 years ago and found him to be a gentle soul amazingly free of ego.
After’s Danny’s closed, the property stood vacant and, in a reconfigured form, is now a Pot Belly.
The book is nicely illustrated with old matchbooks, drawings, menus and other bits of memorabilia from one-time bedrock Baltimore dining establishments, the kind of places where important anniversary and birthday celebrations were held.
As a child I recall Claudia Coffey, a waitress at the busy lunchroom, the old Horn and Horn on East Baltimore Street. She seemed to know every businessman and, with City Hall just up the street, most every politician too. She later moved on to the old Pimlico Hotel, where she created a salad, the Coffey Salad, with chopped hard-boiled eggs. This one came with a warning: watch the vinegar.
For 35 years my favorite downtown dinner spot was Marconi’s on Saratoga Street. I ate there about once a month and began every meal with its house salad, which sailed to my table, along with a bottle of Scotch, French-style bread and a small metal dish containing hand curled butter shavings. Other courses followed.
The restaurant closed in 2005. Its grieving regular patrons have been arguing about the composition of its dishes since that time. Howell gives the recipe for that salad, which I thought, this sounds accurate until I got to a quarter cup of sweet peas. No way.
The came the dessert. The fabled Marconi chocolate sauce. For 35 years I tried to unlock this closely guarded secret. Howell suggests it’s eight ounces of semi-sweet chocolate and a cup of cream. She may be right — or the disputations can continue for another 35 years.