When you have been in the restaurant business for 50 years, like the folks at Peerce's Plantation, you've seen a lot of life. A lot of proms, weddings and romantic dinners. You've served a lot of lobster, but only ones with claws. Baltimore eaters don't care for clawless lobster.
And you have accumulated a lot of stories.
Like the night the engagement ring was presented to the wrong couple. Peerce's is an old rambling place, out in the pretty part of Baltimore County. It is next to Loch Raven Reservoir. It has deer. It has fireplaces and flowers, and until a few years ago the women's menus did not have prices on them. It is the kind of place for a guy to "pop the question" to his steady girl.
On one such romantic occasion, a waiter at Peerce's was told by a maitre d' to present an engagement ring, along with glasses of champagne on a silver tray "to the deuce at Station No. 5." A "deuce," in restaurant lingo, is a twosome, and waiters keep track of the tables in a room by dividing them into numbered work stations.
But the trouble was there were two "deuces" at Station 5. One couple was young and looked the marrying type. The other didn't.
So the waiter ended up giving the ring to the wrong people. Both couples, the ring-bearers and the ring-wanters, were surprised.
It was all smoothed over with champagne, recalled Josef Gohring, Peerce's executive chef. Lots and lots of champagne.
And then there was the time the groom didn't show up. At Peerce's they don't just have receptions, they have weddings, right on the patio, or in a big tent set up in the nearby field.
They are working on their second generation of weddings. Sometimes the mother of the bride got married at Peerce's as well. Over the years the bride and groom have been whisked away from the reception to a life of "happily ever after" by horse-drawn carriages, by antique cars and, lately, by helicopter.
And once a restaurant wedding was called off. It happened a few years ago, when the groom telephoned on the morning of the big event to say sorry, he wasn't going to be there.
Still, the guests had been invited. And the food had been prepared. So the parents decided that while there might not be a wedding, there would be a reception. The mood at the gathering was later decribed as subdued.
These were among the stories I pulled from Peerce M. Lake, the 49-year-old proprietor, and from Gohring, the restaurant's executive chef and part owner. Although pinpointing the exact starting date of the restaurant is arbitrary -- it served chicken in the early 1930s; it got its first liquor license in 1945 -- the family and staff are celebrating the restaurant's 50th anniversary this fall.
Recently on a bright sunny afternoon, as a parade of convertibles, four-wheel-drive trucks and tractors rolled past the restaurant on Dulaney Valley Road, I sat on the patio of Peerce's eating a tomato stuffed with Silver Queen corn and listening to the two men tell tales of restaurant life.
Lake sketched in the history of the restaurant. He told how his father, Duff, and his mother, Marie, ran Peerce's Corner, known for its chicken and its Tuesday-night pitch games. It began serving lunch one day after a Massey-Ferguson dealer who was holding big tractor show on nearby fields asked the Lakes to put on a feed for his customers. The lunch was so successful the Lakes kept doing it. The restaurant evolved from a chicken-in-a-basket place, popular with the tractor guys, to a shrimp-platter place popular with the college girls who drove down the road from Goucher. And there were the high school proms. Every high school couple, it seemed, had to dine at Peerce's. And on prom nights the cooks worked until 3 a.m.
As the cooks changed from fellows who learned their trade in the Army to professional chefs like Gohring, the restaurant became a white-tablecloth, special-occasion place.
"We have a tremendous location," said Peerce Lake, gazing out to the woods, where, encouraged by the block of salt he puts there, deer regularly gather.
"But if you are in a hurry, we are not the place. People come here to be away from the rush."
It is primarily a family business. In the '70s, Lake took over operation of the restaurant from his parents. Now his daughter, Marti, is banquet director. His son, Duff Lake II, works in the kitchen as head chef. Duff's wife, Lisa, works as a hostess. And Duff said their young son, Duff III, will likely be in the business someday.
Gohring came to Peerce's in the mid 1970s. The German-born executive chef has a partial interest in Peerce's and also owns Josef's Country Inn in Fallston. At lunch the other day, Gohring talked about the how Baltimore tastes had changed in the years he has been at Peerce's.
Today's customers eat more rack of lamb in one night, 10 orders, than they did in one week 15 years ago, Gohring said.