Auctioneer's hammer will out-bang crab mallet at Gunning's

HAPPY EATER

January 27, 1993|By ROB KASPER

Of all the crab houses in Baltimore, I had a special fondness for Gunning's on Hanover Street in South Baltimore. Plagued by a series of financial troubles over the past 3 1/2 years, Gunning's is going on the auction block in two weeks.

I liked the old-fashioned way Gunning's steamed crabs. Nowadays, most crab houses cook by piping steam into a stainless steel vat. Gunning's steamed crabs on top of pots bubbling with a brew that contained, among other things, stale beer.

I can't say I tasted the brew's effect in the spicy coating that covered Gunning's steamed crabs. But it felt right that the marriage of crabs and beer, one of life's great unions, should begin in the steamer.

I liked driving to Gunning's. To get there you rode over the Hanover Bridge, a bridge often lined with crabbers, searching for relatives of the very critter you were about to feast on.

On the south side of the bridge, where it is said the local pronunciation of the street changes from HAN-over to han-OVER, you could catch a glimpse of a freighter at anchor in the harbor. By the time you passed the pool hall and a store that sold lawn statues, you felt like you were in a real Baltimore neighborhood.

You entered Gunning's through the bar, which was only fitting. Gunning's customers were not the kind of people who were uneasy in the company of beer drinkers.

From time to time, famous people ate at Gunning's -- like the actor Danny DeVito, in town during filming of "Tin Men." One day after the filming was over, DeVito went back to the restaurant with two of his friends, Jack Nicholson and Mel Brooks.

But most of the time the people you would see at Gunning's were not folks you spotted on magazine covers. They were folks you saw around town, or at the grocery or at work.

The last time I went to Gunning's, I was with a neighbor who was showing a visitor from the Russian Embassy around Baltimore. It was a Sunday, and my kid was playing with the neighbor's kid. The visiting Russian had children as well. All three families -- mine, the neighbor's and the Russian's -- ended up at Gunning's, grunting to each other and hammering hard shells. At the next table I spotted someone I knew -- Roger Twigg, a veteran police reporter for The Sun, and his family.

In 1989 Esquire magazine proclaimed Gunning's crab cake the best in the world. It was good, ranking right up there with the city's notable crab dishes. But when I went to Gunning's, I had the steamed-in-beer hard crabs, or the soft crab sandwich, fried and served with a slice of tomato. I had an order of onion rings and for dessert, a helping of deep-fried green peppers dusted with powdered sugar.

Yesterday Calvin Trillin, author of several books on eating including "American Fried," said he had fond memories of Gunning's deep fried green peppers. "It was the first time I had ever seen deep-fried green peppers, and it was a jolly place," Trillin said in a phone call from his New Yorker magazine office as he recalled a visit he made to the crab house in the 1980s.

Another reason I liked Gunning's was I knew somebody who worked there. I knew Calvin Etheridge, a brick factory foreman who married into the Gunning family and, along with his brother-in-law, Ed Gunning, helped manage the restaurants in South Baltimore and one in Ocean City.

I met him years ago at a noontime basketball game. The pick-up games were played first at the old YMCA at Franklin and Cathedral streets, and then moved to the Downtown Athletic Club on Centre Street. For a long time I knew him only as "Cal, the blond guy with the good jump shot." But eventually I made the connection between the blond guy I saw on the court and the guy I'd see at the crab house.

Lately, when Cal didn't appear at the noontime games, I had an inkling things weren't going well at the restaurant. Gunning's had been in financial trouble since 1989, when a fire destroyed the Ocean City branch. The Ocean City restaurant closed and the restaurant in South Baltimore struggled in the middle of a recession to repay losses from the fire.

It didn't make it. The other day, notice was given that Alex Cooper Auctioneers is scheduled to auction the restaurant's South Hanover Street building Feb. 10, after the owners failed to repay a loan that an attorney for Laurel Federal Savings Bank said exceeded $200,000.

Gunning's was a place with great crabs, good people, and the best deep-fried green pepper rings on the globe. I will miss it.

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