Fish on Fridays at Sparwasser's: a Baltimore story
By Otts Laupus
Jun 07, 2019 | 12:10 PM
In the 1960s and ’70s, I was a teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools assigned to the Department of Radio and Television housed in an old Carnegie-endowed public library building on Smith Avenue and Greeley Road in the heart of Mt. Washington.
At noon, a fellow teacher and I would eat lunch at Sparwasser’s Tavern, as it was called then, and order the “daily special.” The inside of Sparwasser’s was typical of any neighborhood bar of the time, a pool table with local cronies sizing up shots and a 25-cent claw machine containing kitsch of the time: mood rings and plastic figurines that resembled Hummel dolls. On a far wall was a broken Pabst clock with the time frozen at 10:13. Of course there was a bar in the center that still had spittoons beneath the railing — close to being a clone of another neighborhood bar I frequented, Al Kelz’s Elite Tavern on York Road.
And then there was Ed Sparwasser, balding and overweight, wearing an apron that obviously had not been washed since the Great Depression. Ed was a staunch adherent to form and ritual. He didn’t greet you with “hello.” When we entered, Ed was typically wiping down the bar with a rag that obviously served the multi-purpose of cleaning counter tops, washing cars and wiping off dipsticks. Without looking up he would say, “meat loaf, mash potatoes and green beans” or, if it was Friday, “cod fish cake, french fries and succotash.” That was it. No substitutes.
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We nodded, sat at the bar, and Ed would take off for the kitchen only to return seconds later, silverware in one hand and a passel of paper napkins clutched in the other, taking the time to carefully fold the napkins into triangle shapes with the knife and fork on top, no spoons. If there was a water spot on one of the utensils, Ed would wipe it off with his bar rag.
I guess Ed felt it necessary to make some attempt at conversation so he’d say, “Nice day out there, huh?” We’d nod. “Suppose to rain tomorrow, or so the paper says,” he’d add and we’d nod again. Who needed a weatherman when Ed was around?
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The price of the daily lunch special was a dollar. The only time I saw Ed flustered was in the early ’70s, when my friend and I walked in the door expecting the first words out of Ed’s mouth to be the items on the “daily special.” But no. There was a look of apprehension as he said, “Sorry, because of inflation I have to up the price of the special to a buck and a quarter.” There was an awkward pause. He added, “So, I mean, if you wanna’ eat somewheres else...” We said that was fine. A broad grin of relief appeared as he blurted out, “Spaghetti, meatballs and apple sauce. Sun’s out today.”
The Mt. Washington community is now gentrified. There went the neighborhood.
Ed is long gone, and Sparwasser’s Mt. Washington Tavern has been transformed into an upscale restaurant, catering to a young, upwardly mobile clientele with a staff of servers wearing pristine garb. The menu is reflective of the wants and tastes of the millennial generation, featuring trendy drinks, “Apricot and Dijon Glazed Pork Tenderloin” and “Buckwheat and Beet Root Cast Iron Skillet.”