Customer relations served with a twist at venerable bar

June 21, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

The old sign behind the bar reads: "Remember Gentlemen, the Customer Is Always Wrong."

This novel approach to patron relations hasn't hurt the Mount Vernon neighborhood's beloved Gerben's Cafe, a small establishment where the strongest thing to cross the bar is often a Taylor's pork roll sandwich.

Isn't it ironic that this corner taproom at Maryland Avenue and Chase Street, which for decades remained an entrenched all-male bastion, is today dominated by the sunny personality and sweet demeanor of Margaret Glick Gerben, whose father opened the bar 75 years ago.

"My father relented about women. He was kind of stubborn at first, but he changed," Mrs. Gerben said one day this week as she served a slice of fresh ham and gravy to one of her lunchtime regulars.

The line about the customer always being wrong has become something of a Gerben's trade mark.

So how did a bar open as the famed Volstead Act was taking effect and placing the country under national prohibition?

"What did I do during Prohibition? I sold beer and whisky, and food," said the late John Glick in a 1948 interview in this newspaper. At that time, the city had condemned his original location at 26-28 W. Chase St. in order to connect Maryland Avenue with Cathedral Street.

The bar owner was adamant that his saloon remain for men only. "I don't want no women. They just cause fights," Mr. Glick, the bar's founder, said.

He didn't care if he became "the last stag bar in Baltimore."

All that changed shortly after the city cut the street through. Glick's Bar moved slightly to the west and rebuilt anew in an oddly shaped building at 1100 Maryland Ave. The founding owner retired and James A. "Bud" Gerben, his son-in-law, and daughter Margaret took over.

"I'll tell you what kind of place this was when Bud Gerben ran it," said Joe Bowman, a longtime customer who was first taken to this bar by his father many years ago.

"A guy came in here one day and ordered two crab cakes. When they came out and went on the bar, he said, 'Where's the ketchup?' Mr. Gerben said, 'Nobody puts ketchup on crabs cakes.' The customer said, 'Well, I do.'

"Mr. Gerben got up, grabbed his back and threw him out the door, saying, 'Nobody puts ketchup on my cafe's crab cakes," recalled Mr. Bowman, a former Albert Gunther hardware store purchasing agent.

His years as a Gerben's customer is hardly the house record. It might be held by a gentleman named Pat who has been lunching here since 1924.

"I know never to serve him eggs. He's never eaten an egg in his life," Mrs. Gerben said of Pat.

There are other unofficial House of Gerben rules. This is not a cocktail lounge. It's a place for beer, shots of whiskey and the homemade sandwiches and hot dishes Mrs. Gerben makes and passes to customers through an opening behind the bar.

"We aren't too big on mixed drinks. My father used to say, 'If you want a mixed drink, go to the Belvedere," she said, referring to the old hotel that is a block east at Charles and Chase streets.

Gerben's has a nickname based on its proximity to that hotel. Old-timers call it the Little Belvedere. In the days when the thoroughbred racing set traveled to Baltimore for the spring and fall meets at Pimlico, they arrived in chauffeur-driven cars.

"The chauffeurs used to congregate here. The gentlemen and ladies stayed at the Belvedere. But their drivers came here," Mrs. Gerben said.

The immediate neighborhood around the tavern was once filled with fancy automobile agencies. All along Cathedral Street, Maryland and Mount Royal avenues were garages, tire stores, auto supply houses and mechanics -- places named Bittorf Motors, Weil & Scott, Ashley, City Chevrolet, Funk & Ennis, Kelly Buick, Kernan's, Kolpack & Mitchell, Oriole Pontiac, Weiss and the Zell Motor Car Co.

Many a member of the local auto industry used to drop into Gerben's for a laugh, a beer and a bowl of noodle soup.

"It's changed. Today we get lawyers and architects in here. The zTC architect Walter Schamu came in here with his wife. He ordered martinis," Mrs. Gerben said.

"Now I can make a martini, but I gave it a second thought. I said, 'Walter, you step behind the bar and make your own martini.' He did."

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