Palmer House a perfect picture of old Baltimore

MATTERS OF TASTE

April 02, 1992|By Mary Maushard

Tired of homogenized, cookie-cutter restaurants; places where the art is perfectly placed -- and perfectly boring; places where little interesting happens; places that hardly dint your memory?

Then head over to Eutaw Street, two doors south of Lexington Market and five blocks north of Oriole Park to the Palmer House -- excuse me, ''the original Palmer House.''

Where else would you find:

* The photographic equivalent of Haussner's, with a photo of Shoeless Joe Jackson below a photo of the D'Alesandro family (posing in front of their Little Italy home), below a photo of Bob Hope, below an autographed photo of Johnny, the ''Call for Philip Morris'' bellhop.

* Du Burns sitting alone at a large table on a rainy Sunday night, sipping coffee as he's greeted by nearly everyone who enters.

* A card reader to look into the future while your food cooks.

* A slightly inebriated man, who came in off the street to shake hands with diners and wish them the best, then to leave under the waitresses' watchful eyes.

* A bartender who looks like Zazu Pitts, but older and wearing a '50s sleep turban.

Boring, this isn't. New Baltimore, meet Old Baltimore -- slightly eccentric, not always polished or planned, without airs, at ease with itself.

Indeed, at the Palmer House, it almost seems that the world is at ease with itself. Captured in the photos that cover virtually every inch of wall space are Elvis, several popes, forgotten governor Blair Lee III, Joe DiMaggio, FDR, Brooks Robinson, Herbert Hoover, Sophia Loren, remembered governor Albert C. Ritchie and, in various poses, Babe Ruth. They all appear to have been hanging around for years.

Lest one think the folks at the Palmer House live too much in the past, prominently displayed among the photos are pennants from 1990 and 1991 World Series teams.

But this isn't some generic ''sports bar'' that could be a stone's throw from any major league stadium in the country. This is a bit of Baltimore.

Once my husband and I had accustomed ourselves to the photographic inundation, we began with Crab Soup ($1.75 a cup) and a Caesar Salad ($3.95).

The soup was what you'd call thin. Fairly tasty, but thin. Not so the Caesar Salad, a large platter of beautiful Romaine heavy with mustard-edged dressing and large croutons. Heavy but good. And big enough for two.

I moved on to Scampi while my husband had Imperial Crab (each $13.95 and among the most expensive offerings).

The six large shrimp came lavished in garlic butter; they were tender and tasty. Served with it was an ample plate of spaghetti with a rich, flavorful marinara sauce that could hold its own in most Italian restaurants.

The crab, and there was lots of it, was topped with a mayonnaise-based sauce. It could have come from any Baltimore grandmother's kitchen. Not what you'd call ''lite fare.'' The side dish of cabbage, included with the entree, was exceptionally flavorful. The baked potato, also included, was commonplace.

With the meal came a good Italian bread, and pats of margarine.

For dessert, I chose a slice of plain cheesecake ($3). It had a slim graham cracker crust topped with a dense, classic cheese mixture. No added flavoring, just thick and rich cheese-ness.

My husband had a slice of Chocolate Eclair Cake (also $3). The eclair part was quite good; the layers of pudding, cake and chocolate filling were disappointing. It all looked magnificent -- it tasted a notch above ordinary.

The best dessert was one we brought home and had the next night -- a homemade crumb coffee cake ($3) that was as good as it looked. Big in size and in taste, it would be equally at home on the breakfast table or after dinner.

In all, with two cocktails, half a carafe of house white wine and two coffees, our bill came to $60.

Our waitress was attentive, professional and friendly throughout the meal. She was not, however, a connoisseur of the artwork. When we asked who one rather odd-looking chap was, she answered, ''Gandhi, I think. Or is it Picasso?"

** 1/2

The Palmer House,

108 N. Eutaw St.

727-9559

Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

Reservations: Not usually necessary.

Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.

Handicapped access: Limited access.

Smoking: Separate areas designated.

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