Out of tough times came tender steaks

Baltimore Glimpses

August 23, 1994|By Gilbert Sandler

IN AN almost empty coach of a Baltimore & Ohio train on a run from Chicago to Baltimore in the early hours of May 6, 1936, Sidney Friedman, sat upright in his seat, sleeping fitfully.

The coach car was almost empty because most of the passengers were asleep in their Pullman berths. Friedman couldn't afford a sleeper. He barely had enough money for the round-trip ticket.

He had made the trip to attend a restaurant industry show where he learned ways to help his fledgling business, the Chesapeake Restaurant, which grew out of his father's delicatessen and grocery at 1701 N. Charles St., just north of Pennsylvania Station.

Friedman's sleep was made all the more uncomfortable because he was holding a crude, bulky charcoal broiler on his lap. He had bought it at the show where it was touted as producing tender and delicious charcoal-broiled steaks.

Within weeks of returning to Baltimore, the Chesapeake Restaurant was advertising: "Cut your steak with a fork, else tear up your check and walk out." Even in an age of outlandish advertising claims, a restaurateur so confident that his diners didn't have to pay if they weren't pleased with their food attracted a lot of attention.

Friedman's brother, Philip, who now owns Gampy's restaurant on Charles Street, recalls: "It was a first in Baltimore, and from there on out the Chesapeake grew to be one of the most popular of all Baltimore restaurants, taking its place with the all-time greats like Miller Brothers and Haussner's" restaurants.

The Chesapeake -- with its dark wood paneling and red banquettes -- was the first, too, to give Baltimore the Caesar salad, he said: "The first ever served in Baltimore was served by Sid himself at the Chesapeake."

Reading from a 1969 menu from the restaurant, Philip Friedman notes the specialties: "The favorite appetizer was a kettle of steamed clams at $1.95. And we served a 16-ounce steak fillet for $6.95, Chateaubriand for $13.75. The most popular dessert by far was our own coconut snowball. How can I describe it? It was two huge scoops of vanilla ice cream drowned in a fudge sauce we made ourselves and then smothered with fresh -- I mean fresh coconut! The cost -- $1.25."

For some years, the restaurant was a popular gathering spot for the media, sports figures and corporate honchos. In its heyday, one was lucky if long-time maitre d' Isidor Friedman (Sid Friedman's nephew) would let you in, not to mention give you a seat. It was almost impossible to get a table on Saturday nights without a reservation.

A fire closed the restaurant in 1974. Sidney Friedman, who died a year ago, retired in 1976, selling the restaurant to Philip. The Friedman family severed its ties to the Chesapeake in 1986.

Other owners tried to revive the restaurant in 1987, but it soon closed. The legend that began on a B & O train ride years ago had run its course.

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