Black eateries

Baltimore Glimpses

March 24, 1992|By Gilbert Sandler

FROM time to time, Glimpses has described the city's old Chinese restaurants, its Italian restaurants and many of the Jewish delicatessens that used to dot the East Baltimore landscape.

Black restaurants are a different category because until the late 1950s and early 1960s, the city's blacks had no choice but to patronize their own eateries if they wanted to eat out. Jim Crow kept them out of white establishments.

That, of course, has changed, but it didn't change so long ago that even middle-aged Baltimoreans have forgotten . . .

Sess's, at 1639 Division St., between Druid Hill and Pennsylvania avenues, was the most popular black eatery for many years. Westley Johnson, proprietor of the Five Mile House at Reisterstown Road and Hayward Avenue, says, "For half a century Sess's was easily the No. 1 restaurant for black Baltimore. All of the stars from the Royal Theater used to go there for dinner -- Pearl Bailey, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington. To say nothing of a heavy contingent of black doctors, lawyer and business types. For what it was, and was for 50 years, Sess's had no equal." Sess's was owned and operated for 40 of those years by Louise Pinder.

Sampson's, at 944 West Fayette St., was a strong runner-up. Its attraction was home cooking -- collard greens, chitterlings, pork chops. It boasted its own bakery, where customers could watch bread and rolls being prepared. It was owned and operated by J.A. Duke Martin.

The restaurant most famous for ribs may have been Leon's Pig Pen Barbecue, owned by Leon Speights. There were six of them in the city in the 1970s, and the clientele -- doctors, lawyers, judges, blue-collar workers and welfare recipients -- sometimes was as famous as the food.

There were two Soul Shacks, one in the Lexington Market, the other at 228 North Monroe St. They featured fried chicken, potato salad, collard greens, stewed cabbage and corn bread. The Soul Shack was operated by Kenneth Bryant and Glendora Cox.

Two other restaurants fondly recalled are the Alhambra (1520 Pennsylvania Ave.) and Vilma's Restaurant and Tavern (2242 Pennsylvania). Both were known for their seafood -- and superior crab cakes.

Sess's, Sampson's, Leon's, the Soul Shacks -- they are all out of business. There were a number of causes: the economy, population shifts, changing lifestyles. Surely one ironic reason was integration itself. Blacks could dine anywhere they wished, and more of them had the money to patronize upscale restaurants. The result was tough times for the traditional black eateries.

Westley Johnson's Five Mile House is an exception. "We've been here now almost 20 years," he says. "I suppose it's true about our position in the black community. We see Mayor Schmoke dining here, along with many of Baltimore's leading educators, politicians, doctors and business executives."

How long the Five Mile House, the Red Rooster (another survivor) and other so-called black restaurants will survive is, of course, anyone's guess. As Glimpses has observed, the shelf life of any restaurant in the city isn't long. (Who would have dreamed a year ago that by the spring of 1992 Danny's would be closed, its furnishings and wine cellar auctioned?) These days, the 20 years of the Five Mile House are an eternity!

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.