A Baltimore dining dynasty went out with a whimper yesterday as the closed Danny's restaurant was sold to a finance company that was foreclosing on a $650,000 deed of trust.
Chrysler First Business Credit Corp. paid $375,000 to repossess the 30-year-old restaurant at North Charles and Biddle streets, once Baltimore's leading gourmet establishment.
But the scene in Danny's dining room yesterday was as dated as the 1977 Craig Claiborne review of the restaurant's crab cakes posted inside the front door and as sad as the tale of family strife that helped force the restaurant to close. (The former New York Times food writer, no Baltimorean, struggled to overcome his amazement that one would mix fine crab meat with mayonnaise.)
Under a water-damaged ceiling, auctioneer Jack Billig evoked Danny's glory days to a crowd of bidders and spectators seated in a room whose walls were half-covered by paneling that has been out of style for years.
"This restaurant was not only the prime restaurant of its kind, a gourmet restaurant, but it had a real following," said Mr. Billig, of A. J.Billig & Co. Auctioneers. "It's not too pleasant for me" to auction it off.
But sentiment took a back seat to bargain-hunting as bidders refused to pry their wallets open more than a little in bidding on the 150-seat restaurant, its equipment, its liquor, liquor license and the seven apartments upstairs.
"Folks, you couldn't buy this building for $350,000," Mr. Billig said as the bidding stalled. "Forget the seven-day liquor license, which you couldn't get if you stood on your head."
But in the end, no one was willing to top Chrysler's $375,000 bid, so the lender took it back. Daniel M. Billig, another employee of the auction company, said the disposition of the building and equipment would be up to Chrysler, which lent money to the restaurant's former owners last June.
The restaurant had been declining for years before founder Danny Dickman sold it to his son and daughter-in-law last year.
The younger Dickmans soon became embroiled in a nasty HTC divorce, a conflict that heated up in November when the younger Mrs. Dickman called Baltimore County police to say that her husband had come to her house with a gun. He called police from a nearby store and said she had shot at him.
Neither of the younger Dickmans could be reached yesterday.
The restaurant, which once received a four-star rating from the Mobil Travel Guide, was known for blending heavily sauced French cuisine with homey touches such as popovers and pickles.
"Few restaurants have fresh caviar or a wine list that includes 1949 Lafite Rothschild (albeit at a price only the Shah of Iran could afford)," Sun restaurant critic John Dorsey wrote in 1975.
But by the mid-1980s, Danny's reputation was fading. "Is there a story behind what's happened to Danny's in recent years?" reviewer Janice Baker wrote in 1987. By 1989, the restaurant wasn't even included in a Dining Out guide published by The Sun.
About the only ones who came away happy yesterday were those at the Pinehurst Gourmet & Spirit Shoppe on Bellona Avenue, which made a side deal with Chrysler First to buy the liquor inventory for $5,500.
Late yesterday, Pinehurst owner Robert Schindler, who had been prepared to spend $10,000, was still exulting over his purchase.
"I walked out and stole the whole thing. It was unbelievable," he said. In effect, he said, he was the only bidder because he was the only one at the auction with a liquor license.
Mr. Schindler said Danny's cellar included many old vintages of top-ranked Bordeaux, including such names as Mouton-Rothschild and d'Yquem, bottles of which regularly command three-figure prices.
Many of the wines were resold to collectors within hours after the gavel fell. Mr. Schindler said yesterday afternoon that Pinehurst had one check in hand for almost $2,800.