Closing of Connolly's stuns dedicated fans


August 29, 1991|By Kim Clark

Connolly's Seafood House on Pier 5, an 87-year-old institution of fish frying, closed yesterday to make room for a $164 million center for high-technology fish research.

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.

"It is going to be a loss. . . . It is a clumsy-looking place, but they served good food," said dedicated customer and former Mayor Clarence "Du" Burns.

But might Connolly's return? "We're hopeful, hon," Naomi Connolly, daughter-in-law of the restaurant's founder, said as she sat insidethe darkened restaurant. If the family and the city agree, the family will open another restaurant sometime next year inside a new building planned for Pier 7.

Mrs. Connolly, a cherubic, apple-cheeked woman who has spent nearly every working day since 1939 greeting diners inside the three dumpy green metal buildings, said that the restaurant had been living under the threat of closure since 1971, when the city canceled the family's 100-year-lease on the pier and started redeveloping the Inner Harbor.

The 74-year-old widow of Sterling Connolly said that the family has operated on a month-to-month lease for nearly 20 years and that customers often joked with her about the restaurant's impending closure. "They'd say 'Well, we came down, and you're still here.' "

Yesterday, though, they weren't.

A board with the word "Closed" spray-painted in orange turned away would-be diners who stopped to examine a displayed menu that offered everything from hot dogs for $1.25 to the popular fried seafood platter for $14.95.

Inside, family members spent the day calming distraught customers who phoned or knocked on the locked door.

Karen Connolly, Naomi's 44-year-old daughter, made a last fish sandwich for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., who rushed to the restaurant yesterday when she heard the news.

"Breaded and fried is the best way to eat seafood," Karen Connolly said. "It seals in the flavor. People are always worrying that it will be greasy, but it isn't."

She said that she is considering what to do with the ancient chairs, the industrial-sized steamers that handled 10 bushels of crabs a nightand the stuffed marlins customers sent in for decorations.

Already yesterday, friends were preparing to take away some items,but Karen will keep all the mementos. The new restaurant, she hopes, will have a more efficient kitchen but the same blowfish, hand-carved model ships and pictures of her father with stars such as Peggy Lee -- a decor once described by a Sun reviewer as "ghastly."

Though the deal to move into a proposed new waterfront building hasn't been struck, the Connollys said that they were eager to restart their restaurant in order to keep the family dynasty going.

Twenty-four-year-old Karene Connolly, Karen's daughter, works as a bartender, and her two young sons help clean up each night.

David M. Gillece, president of the semi-public agency that is developing the harbor and is the Connollys' landlord, said that the Center City-Inner Harbor Development Corp. is working on a deal to move the restaurant into a marina building planned for Pier 7.

But, he said, the new restaurant will probably cost the Connollys

more in rent than their old Pier 5 warehouse buildings. The Connollys paid only $400 per month for rent, according to the Harbormaster's office.

Mr. Gillece said that he would "try and be as accomodating as we can to keep the Connollys in business. They don't charge as much for dinner as other people. It is important to keep lower-end restaurants for families in the harbor."

Though the downtown development agency has raised only about two-thirds of the cost of constructing the planned Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration, he said that he is confident that the rest of the money will be raised.

Naomi Connolly said that she didn't announce the closing date ahead of time because she didn't want to make a fuss. The Connollys have always eschewed publicity and have never advertised. For many years, the restaurant wasn't even listed in the Yellow Pages.

"I wanted to do it as quiet as possible. We waited for this so long, I am going to do it with a smile, ladylike."

Though she is good friends with many influential Marylanders (Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who dined at Connolly's twice a week during his tenure as Baltimore's mayor, "is a dear friend. . . . He is Mister Don to us."), Mrs. Connolly said she didn't try to enlist them to fight the closure. "I'm not going to raise hell and say 'Why me?' " she said.

Instead, she said that for the first time in her adult life, she plans to take a real vacation. When she and her husband ran the restaurant, they worked from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. seven days a week. Since Karen took over a decade ago, the family has taken a break on Tuesdays. But the rest of the week is hectic. The restaurant's 53 employees serve as many as 700 dinners on a summer weekend night.

"I'm going to sit on my butt for a day or two and read a newspaper," Naomi said. Though she'll have about a year of free time, she doesn't plan to travel far. "I love Baltimore. . . . And Ocean City is fine with me," she said.

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