A Meal with Two Vegetables and Good Portions for $5

March 22, 1992|By RAFAEL ALVAREZ

Don't be fooled by the mauve molding around the ceiling, the new gray and lavender Formica, or the life-is-a-middle-class-breeze wallpaper that looks like it was stripped from the breakfast nook of an Owings Mills town house.

You'll know you're in the right place because the slabs of raw meat are still piled one atop the other in a glass chill box under the cash register, a still life in bloody brown with heads of lettuce.

You'll know because behind the counter, flipping eggs and directing the show, will be George Basil, a living, spatula-wielding legend at the corner of Boston and Van Lill Streets on the Canton waterfront.

You will know that you are in the newly remodeled Sip & Bite, perhaps the most fabled Baltimore diner of the last quarter-century.

''They make the best liver and onions in the city,'' said Steve Boone, the former bass player for the Lovin' Spoonful who ate all-hours breakfasts there throughout the 1980s. ''And the stories are legion.''

Such stories, said Jerry Kelly, who owns the X-rated Earle Theater on Belair Road and knows a few things about burlesque in real life.

''I'll never forget,'' he said, ''the night the lady lost her teeth, fell right out of her mouth while she was eating.''

But George Basil asks you, please, to forget all that: close your eyes to the 2 a.m. floor show of cops and robbers, realtors and hookers, preppies and transvestites; car-phone yups, surf-whipped sea dogs and dreamers dying of loneliness; bums, nuts and losers; fat cats, politicians, history professors and people who were born along the Baltimore docks when cargo ships still sailed from here to there on the wind.

Close your eyes and open your mouth, says the man who has just spent $135,000 to improve the facilities and 24-hour-a-day ambience of the Sip & Bite.

Raising a finger in the air, George declares: ''I haven't raised my prices one penny, not one penny! Where you going to go to eat a meal with two vegetables and good portions for $5? No place!''

And no place is where they are coming in by the dozens every day, from 12:01 a.m. to 11:59 p.m., more now than before.

''Somebody was telling me it was remodeled,'' said a man the other night while ordering hot roast beef with gravy at 1:30 in the morning. ''But I didn't believe it.''

Mr. Boone once shared a stage with the Beatles. He has re-habbed many a Baltimore rowhouse and has eaten runny eggs around the world. He would believe anything about the Sip & Bite.

''It's a landmark in the same way the old Ambassador Restaurant was [at Pratt and Eutaw]. Man, back in '73 or '74 that place was Damon Runyon land with every wall-eyed freak in Baltimore,'' he said. ''But the Sip & Bite was always a cut above because the food was better.''

When George closed the restaurant for two weeks in January for renovation, many of his customers and a few of his employees were forced out onto Boston Street to find food and work at other cafes.

None of them liked it very much. ''I went across the street for the duration,'' said a guy named Bill, a big man with a pony-tail. ''It just doesn't taste as good.''

When George re-opened the regulars came back to find the waitresses the same but the restrooms, of which the employees are proud, brand-new. ''Have you see the bathrooms yet?'' asks Louise Smith, perhaps the skinniest waitress in town.

The old counter stools were preserved and George kept the lone green office chair by the meat case for parties who can't all crowd into one booth, but the floor is new ceramic tile.

The char-broil grill and the handicap-access ramp are new, but the enlarged write-ups from newspapers prosperous and defunct still hang on the wall, attesting in adjectives stolen from detective novels about the food, the characters and the mystique of the Sip & Bite.

This is a crabcake and Greek salad joint so deep in the peculiar romance of Baltimore that, according to an old packing-house lady, a young woman once made a waitress give her the heavy porcelain coffee cup she was drinking out of to better remember the man who seduced her over scrambled eggs in a booth.

Most likely George was behind the counter at the time, calling out orders the same way he's been doing since 1968.

''When I first come to this country I worked for my uncle for a few years and then I never work for anybody but myself -- 60 hours a week in here,'' he said. ''Anybody who works hard in this country can make it. You can become anything.''

Like a spatula-wielding legend in the most fabled diner in Baltimore.


Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Sun

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