A restaurant where the tab is based on trust

Jacques Kelly

April 27, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

You'll never be surprised by a hefty check at Kirby's Restaurant and Deli.

There aren't any.

The lunchroom in the 400 block of W. Redwood St. operates on the honor system. When it's time to leave, your tab is dictated by what you've eaten, your memory and your standard of personal honesty.

"People seem to like it this way," says Sam Sudano, the ever-trusting 31-year-old co-owner of Kirby's. "It also saves time for the waitresses. They don't have to tabulate checks. Some people say we lose 5 percent [in receipts] every day, but I don't believe it."

The restaurant Sudano purchased nearly a year ago thrives on good food, moderate prices and extra helpings of personality.

Kirby's, open Mondays through Fridays, is in the old garment center district now dominated by the University of Maryland's downtown professional schools.

This is the kind of house that caters to customers who want double dips of dressing on the chef's salad and extra bacon on their turkey club sandwiches. The staff also gives refills of soft drinks for a nominal charge.

"We try to avoid the annoyances that chase people away from other restaurants," Sudano said.

This can be an amazing feat. The luncheon trade can be so brisk the place resembles the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Men and women dressed in operating room scrub outfits -- in for a fast Philadelphia cheese steak sub. A physician with a stethoscope orders "my regular." Shrimp salad sandwiches, chili, cream of broccoli soup and hot dogs come out of the kitchen at the rate of one dish every 30 seconds.

In the middle of the bedlam, sandwich and salad makers Joyce DeFelice and Lola DeCarlo pop their heads out of the kitchen for a quick survey of customers. They love watching customers gobble their specialties, including a sweet French dressing that gets outstanding reviews.

Also working behind the counter is co-owner George Hummel, 34.

"When you take a carryout order, be sure to get the customer's first name," Hummel tells a new employee. Name recognition is as important here as the quality of the shrimp salad.

The shrimp salad is the most expensive item on the menu -- $5.25 for a sandwich -- and Kirby's sells a lot of it.

Customers freely engage in a Baltimore pastime -- comparing shrimp dishes. Are these plump critters as good as those at the John Stevens in Fells Point or Kibby's Restaurant near St. Agnes Hospital? As they debate, they eat and enjoy.

"I think people order shrimp out a lot because they don't like to cook it at home," Sudano said.

He came to Kirby's about 10 years ago when it was owned by Edgar Kirby, a Baltimore police officer who ran the place with family members.

"I'm waiting on the same people I used to bus dishes for," Sudano said.

After a stint in the computer service industry, he came back to the restaurant, bought it with his partner and began making some changes. Surrounded by 90-year-old former garment industry buildings -- many a man's suit and pair of BVDs was once made just around the corner -- the restaurant has witnessed the changes in the neighborhood.

"People once came in here for 50-cent fried egg sandwiches and $2 subs. Now they ask for our yuppie special, the all-vegetable garden burger," Sudano said.

And on the weeknights the Orioles are playing at nearby Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Kirby's is open until the first pitch.

"A family going to the ball park can eat here for $10-$15 and we throw in a bag of peanuts when they leave," Sudano said.

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