Good eggs and good conversation But changes worry owners of Towson House BALTIMORE COUNTY

July 22, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

Dan Pearce came in for an early lunch yesterday at the Towson House -- a hamburger, apple sauce, coffee and milk.

Although his diet has changed over the decades, his location has remained the same.

"I've been eating here for 30 years," the structural engineer said of the Chesapeake Avenue eatery, which this week is celebrating 40 years as a lunchtime landmark and mecca for movers and shakers in the Baltimore County seat.

Noontime crowds still pack the place to the doors, and loyal customers maintain their longtime habits, but the restaurant's aging owners say they don't know how long they will hang on.

Competition from new restaurants and canteens that have sprouted in Towson over the last few years has cut into their business, and the bank that owns the property won't give them a lease because of the site's potential for development, said E. Bartley Green, the founder, and Jack McCarty, the manager and co-owner.

The Towson House -- with its 25 tables and lunch counter -- is in the heart of Towson's government and business district.

Politicians and judges discuss affairs of state at its tables. Lawyers and cops plan their strategies. Businessmen hatch deals, and public employees gossip about bureaucratic maneuvers over hamburgers, bowls of crab soup and food that's as traditional as the clientele.

Charlie Winchester, a retired police detective and now a private eye, relaxed over a coffee during the lull between yesterday's lunch and breakfast crowds.

"I used to come in every day for breakfast. The 'M Squad' [major case squad] used to plan its strategy here every morning. "Now the squad is gone -- everything is specialized," he said. "But I still love fried eggs and potatoes. They also make great milkshakes, lots of ice cream."

Stockbroker Donald Nesbitt, 65, comes in regularly for breakfast. "They serve excellent food and there's a lot of camaraderie, friendly people," said Mr. Nesbitt.

"I've been risking my health by coming here for 40 years," Russell J. White, a Towson lawyer, declared with a grin. "They have the best eggs and hot cakes in town, and I love to hear the waitresses laughing and talking with the customers. And their pies are really great, too -- especially the chocolate cream pie."

It's a friendly place. If someone forgets his wallet or comes up short at the cash register, "They'll tell you to pay it when you come in again," Mr. White observed.

Shirley Davis, 58, came to work as a cook in 1955 and still turns out stacks of fluffy pancakes and dozens of her special turkey club sandwiches every day.

"It's like a family here," Mrs. Davis said, "Most of the people are older, settled people -- the customers, too."

There have been a few memorable occasions through the years, Mr. Green said, such as the day a local insurance man keeled over dead "at that table right there." Or the day the late Lt. Gov. Blair Lee III "came in with an entourage of seven people, and they never paid the bill. I sent it to him but I never heard, so that one was on me."

The Towson House opened July 20, 1953, and was "an instant success" because there so few eating places in Towson for the business-government lunch crowd, said Mr. Green, who at 77 still dresses Towson-prep style: loafers, chinos and a blue button-down shirt.

Mr. Green said he became a restaurateur because he has a medical condition -- narcolepsy, whose victims are apt to fall asleep in mid-sentence -- that made him virtually unemployable elsewhere.

"I was a little despondent over my problem," he said. "There were so many things I couldn't do, and working for someone else, I'd get fired."

But he noticed the need for a breakfast and lunch spot in Towson, and figured he had some heredity on his side: "My grandfather, Pierre Gigone, was a French chef, so I had a little bit in the blood, a few drops."

Yesterday, waitresses set up the tables for the midday onslaught.

"You have to get here before noon or you're out of luck," said stockbroker Donald Nesbitt, 65, a regular.

But appearances can be deceiving, Mr. Green cautioned. "In the past year, business has been lousy. The economy is bad and there are so many new places to eat. Every little cubby-hole has a snack bar now, and the county has renovated its canteen and encouraged employees to eat there."

Mr. McCarty, 65, who has been at Towson House for 29 years as co-investor and manager, said that a heart condition has forced him to reduce his work schedule. Mr. Green has had health problems, too.

"Business has gone down in recent years because of the increased competition. We'll go along as long as we can, but I don't know how long that will be," Mr. McCarty said.

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