Venerable Baltimore restaurants just aren't allowed to change. Alter one string bean and there will be a food riot.
Although the menus at some of Baltimore's oldest restaurants remain unchanged, their looks have been updated.
Consider Marconi's Restaurant, which has been delighting local palates for the past 70 years. Its owners brought in an interior decorator. The Sip & Bite, the Boston Street eaterie that never closes, shut down for two weeks for a major interior renovation. And Rallo's, the neighborhood restaurant that South Baltimore swears by, was forced to shed its 1940s look after a fire severely damaged its interior.
Marconi's, in the 100 block of W. Saratoga St., prides itself on its fierce resistance to change. John Brooks has been at its front door for 60 years. Chef Tony Sartori is in his 36th year in the kitchen that is fabled for its seafood and continental delicacies and for its irresistible chocolate sauce served over vanilla ice cream.
So what happened when the owners hired the Johnson-Berman interior design firm to give a new image to a rear dining room? New chandeliers, crimson silk draperies with little gold stars and red wallpaper appeared. And the old refrigerator that was once in open view was moved behind a screen. A nondescript wall clock disappeared and a dimmer was installed for the lighting.
"We've received nothing but compliments on the room. Everyone has loved it. It's not like we changed the food. People still order the Planters Punches and Rye Presbyterians," said Marconi waiter Stan Morris. A rye Presbyterian, to the uninitiated, is a shot of Maryland Rye (alas, now made in Kentucky), a dose of ginger ale and a dose of club soda.
Ahmad Rozegar, Marconi's manager, said long-time customers have taken to the new look in the backroom. And one tradition has not changed. A house rule insists that all men wear a coat here, even if it comes from a supply the restaurant keeps on hand.
Regulars at the Sip & Bite, in the 2200 block of Boston St., were dumbfounded when this 24-hour-a-day southeast Baltimore institution closed after Christmas for nearly two weeks. It reopened with new floors, counters and tiling. The waitresses now wear teal blue "Sip & Bite" knit shirts.
"The prices stayed the same. We didn't raise one thing. After 40 years of being open night and day, with maybe a day off for Christmas, we just had to close. The place was wearing out," declared owner George "Basil" Vasiliades.
At the new-look Sip & Bite, the diners retain the old enthusiasm for the $4.50 beef stew dinner or $7.95 crab cake platter.
And nobody has tampered with the Sip & Bite menu. One entree reads, "Shish K. Bob."
Across the harbor, in the 800 block of E. Fort Ave., near Fort McHenry, is Rallo's Restaurant, another classic Baltimore kitchen. It's been operated by the Rallo family since 1925 and been in this location for 50 years. A fire damaged its World War II-era lunchroom in 1990. Reborn, Rallo's now has a crisp white and blue appearance.
But its army of regular diners still mark their calendars for the alternate Fridays when the shrimp Creole is on the menu. When South Baltimore pastors notice a dip in church attendance on Sunday mornings, it's probably because the regulars played hooky to feast on Rallo's creamed chipped beef.
Indeed, real Baltimoreans don't eat the wallpaper or chew the Formica table. But they do mark their calendars. Monday is Sip & Bite beef stew. Wednesday means Rallo's good-as-your-grandmother's chicken noodle soup and Friday is the day for the sacred oysters Pauline at Marconi's.