Lou Baumel, his Harvey House: The touches of old Baltimore

Jacques Kelly

January 13, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

After 52 years on Charles Street and 40 years at the Harvey House, Lou Baumel salutes his customers like the friends they've become.

He knows the worst sin in his business is not recognizing a customer by name.

Lou Baumel, 75, is the acknowledged dean of Restaurant Row, which stretches from the 800 block of N. Charles St. to Danny's at the corner of Charles and Biddle streets. He's held a liquor license on the street since 1940. He and his son, Barry, operate the Harvey House. On a weekend evening, the place hums. The customers wouldn't be anyplace else.

"It's almost like a club. People feel like they belong here. People like it because their name is known and recognized," the soft-spoken restaurateur said.

The Harvey House, in the 900 block of N. Charles St., is a study in Baltimore. Each table is filled with parties of people who seem to have gone to high school together. They are the kind of people who once shared Colts season tickets. They still go to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's pops concerts. They know every entree on the menu.

The customers wave and nod to each other. Friends call out and visit. The customers have allegiances to longtime waitresses Josie Williams and Kathy Souza.

The restaurant has not been enlarged or changed much since 1959 when Lou Baumel kept as many as 30 Colts tickets available for customers and ran buses to and from Memorial Stadium.

"That was a lot of work, closing down late on a Saturday night and then coming right back here for the pregame Sunday crowd," he recalled.

The place retains the touch of Rose Baumel, Lou Baumel's wife who died last April. She supervised the kitchen and loved to collect the cut glass and fancy plates that fill the restaurant's shelves and china cabinets. The bric-a-brac is part of the Harvey House lore.

Lou Baumel got his start in 1940 when his brother needed help. Milton Baumel (who boxed professionally under the name Tom Shaw) along with partners Cy Bloom and Moe Levy opened the Club Charles at Charles and Preston streets. Through the World War II years, it was Baltimore's busiest nightclub, with two orchestras, a chorus line and big-name entertainers. Lou Baumel started in the kitchen.

Those were heady days. When he wasn't selecting the beef, he was booking talent. Or catering to his stars.

"One night, Sophie Tucker had finished her act. It was late -- after 2 a.m. -- and the bar was closed. She wanted a bottle of beer with her supper. All of a sudden, Capt. Alexander Emerson [head of the city police vice squad] came in and saw a bottle of beer on the table. He was loud and raised all sorts of objections.

"She reamed him out. I thought she was going to hit him with a table. He left quietly," Lou Baumel recalled.

After World War II, the nightclub business fell off. Television took its toll. By 1951, the Club Charles had to close.

It was then that Lou Baumel decided to open a restaurant, whose only entertainment would be a piano in the bar. He named his place the Harvey House. He had a boy named Harvey and there was a popular play (and later film) titled "Harvey." In the production, Harvey is an invisible rabbit, over 6 feet tall, who befriends a bibulous character.

Some of the Club Charles is at the Harvey House. "These are the same table bases from the Club Charles. We're still using them," Lou Baumel said, pointing to the restaurant's tables.

For many years, the bar at the Harvey House was one of Charles Street's most popular gathering spots. In the era of Manhattans and martinis, people stood three deep at the bar.

"Things have changed. People don't drink as much. We've added an expresso machine in the bar," Barry Baumel said.

But for the most part, Harvey House regulars don't like to be unsettled by change. So it was with some fear that chicken a la king was recently removed from the menu. The veal Holstein remained.

"We're making some changes. A new awning is going up outside. But we're still the Harvey House," Barry Baumel said.

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