Where the diners expect eavesdropping TASTY BREAK

Jacques Kelly

April 13, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

When the midnight urge for corned beef or Black Forest cake strikes, there are two men on Charles Street ready with menus, forks and napkins.

Henry Pertman, 39, and Jeff Pressman, 38, are the owners of Henry & Jeff's Restaurant & Deli, a place that has established itself as a thriving seven-day-a-week haunt for food, talk and people-watching.

"I want us to be the Nate's and Leon's of the 1990s," Mr. Pertman says of the once famous West North Avenue delicatessen that flourished from the 1930s to 1970.

On a busy Friday evening, conversations bounce off the walls of their main dining room in the 1200 block of N. Charles St., just south of Pennsylvania Station.

Two women debate the merits of driving to Fort Lauderdale with $125 between them. A young man sitting alone reads a Penguin Book edition of Homer's "Odyssey." Another table rips into a production of "Lost in Yonkers" they've just seen at the Mechanic. People talk with the assurance that the next table over is eavesdropping.

But this isn't the worst of crunch time. That's the early Sunday afternoon crowd, when a table of seven will be ordering components of breakfast, lunch and dinner all at the same time.

"What can I say? It gets hairy," Mr. Pressman says.

The two owners say it's hard to define their patrons, who go through several changes of personality and sociology depending upon the time of day.

The clothing worn by Henry & Jeff regulars offers a few clues.

Business dress predominates weekdays for breakfast and lunch. In the afternoon, a table of old gentleman from the upper Mount Vernon-Belvedere neighborhood arrive to discuss the world's problems -- and their own. If there's an evening event at the Meyerhoff or Lyric, the garb might be mink coats and silk dresses. After 11 p.m., the fashion show features everything from Veteran's Warehouse attire to the Gap, Value City and Banana Republic.

The patrons reflect the neighborhood: young and old and a mix of races.

The three-level operation (bar, deli counter and restaurant) stays open as long as there are customers. A fourth theater of operation is the sidewalk, where tables and chairs are set out when the weather permits. The place closes at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. on the weekends, a little after midnight on a slow Monday night.

The two partners met in 1982 when each was in his 20s and working the deli counter at the Bun Penny at Harborplace. Each had a background in the food business.

Mr. Pertman, who was born in Poland, started slicing lunch meat as a child at his father's neighborhood grocery store. He worked at corner operations first on Riggs Avenue, then Hanover Street and last on Fort Avenue.

"I was butchering chickens when I was 12. At 15, I gave my father a week off," Mr. Pertman says.

Mr. Pressman is from a family well known in Baltimore food circles. An uncle owned Gourmet Catering and the Gourmet Shop in Pikesville; another uncle had a meat stall at Harborplace and the old Baron's 200 in Hunt Valley.

The two partners worked together at a number of other local businesses, including MacGillivray's Pharmacy and the Peabody Court Hotel, until they dug into their pockets and bought this operation in late 1989.

One or both is present nearly seven days a week, from dawn to closing. It's only then they get to go home to their families.

"In this business, you have to recognize your regular customers by name. That's the way business is done in Baltimore," Mr. Pertman says.

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