Dickman's gourmet dining routed skeptics for 30 years

JACQUES KELLY

March 04, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

If times were different, there would be a banner stretched across the front of Danny's Restaurant announcing the return of springtime shad: "The run is on." Instead, there's an auctioneer's sign.

Danny's, a legend among Baltimore restaurants, goes on the auction block tomorrow.

It was nearly 30 years that Danny Dickman proved the local skeptics wrong. He gave the city an expensive dining spot at Charles and Biddle streets.

In late 1961, he charged $7.25 for a serving of flaming steak Diane. He served baked Alaska, cherries jubilee and chateaubriand. He knew Baltimore's tastes and put sour beef and chicken croquettes on his menu. There were always pumpernickel rolls, garlic toast and pickles.

Before long, customers were demanding he make his Caesar salad at their tables. He got Baltimore to call his soft crabs "whales." It was easier to get a seat on Opening Day at the ball park than it was to get a reservation on Opening Day at Danny's. A play couldn't be staged at the Mechanic Theatre without a Danny's courtesy bus parked outside.

Mr. Dickman, now 76 years old, sold his operation last year. The restaurant didn't make it and closed before Christmas. "It's a rough, hard business," Mr. Dickman said as he reviewed a lifetime spent serving food to Baltimoreans.

His wife sat across the room in their Charles Street apartment. She said people were incredulous at their plan to bring choice steaks and seafood blanketed in cream sauces here. "They said, 'A gourmet restaurant in Baltimore? Never happen!' " Bea Dickman said.

But the Dickmans did. Mr. Dickman supervised all the food and made the famous Caesar salads. Mrs. Dickman managed the dining room and acted as hostess. Their 150 seats were solidly booked for many years.

"If it wasn't the best, I wouldn't buy it. The fish had to be absolutely fresh. I'd look at the eyes," Mr. Dickman said of his pre-dawn trips to the old wholesale Fish Market at Market Place.

His first exposure to the food business came at the age of 4. "I dipped ice cream at my father's confectionery store at Broadway and Eager," he said. At 17, he graduated from Forest Park High School and went to work at his brother's restaurant, Dickman's, at Mount Royal and Maryland avenues.

"In the Depression, cash was short but people had money to drink. A dime bought 22 ounces of beer," Mr. Dickman recalled.

Shortly after their marriage 53 years ago, the Dickmans began making trips to New York. There they visited Henri Soule's famed Pavilion restaurant. They took notes from Andre Surmain at Lutece, another fabled Manhattan French restaurant. Mr. Dickman had ideas. He wanted this for Baltimore.

His chance came in 1961. He bought the old Riviera Delicatessen at Charles and Biddle. Hecht Company decorator Louis Clayton added his touches. Soon Baltimore had crepes and souffles and Crabe en chemise. They loved his fresh asparagus, broiled tomatoes and seven styles of potato.

And he never forgot his brother Charlie Dickman's crab cake recipe. In time, noted food critic Craig Claiborne would describe this dish as "the finest I've eaten anywhere." High praise also came from Holiday and Esquire magazines. There were 10,000 bottles in Danny's wine cellar.

Not all Baltimoreans found the place to their taste. Some winced at the prices. Others didn't care for flaming steaks and the cream sauces. Others knocked the decor. But to its faithful following, Danny's was the best.

And Mr. Dickman also kept the faith. "I'd be up at 4 in the morning. I'd sweep the sidewalk. In all my years, I only missed one day here," he said.

He still does a couple of hours of daily exercise, including laps around the block and 15 minutes of standing on his head.

"People can talk about fat and how something isn't good for you," Mr. Dickman said. "But they go in a restaurant and all those complaints disappear. I myself love food and serving it to people."

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