A dining experience at Horn's leaves one satisfied years later

December 29, 1996|By Jacques Kelly

THE OTHER EVENING, I took a walk to see the pieces of rubble the wreckers hadn't yet carted away from the old Horn & Horn restaurant building on Baltimore Street near Guilford Avenue. I stared at the debris for a few minutes and moved on. I couldn't help thinking how casually we had destroyed one of the city's finest temples of eating. Its place, and that of its neighboring buildings on this block, will be taken for a parking garage.

It wasn't hard to spot some of the signature pieces that made this address so distinctive. Otto Simonson, a gifted architect who was instrumental in rebuilding Baltimore after the 1904 fire, fitted out this restaurant in marble, dark wood, scrolled ironwork and electric lights. The veining on the Horn's marble was as deep and heavily marked as a piece of prime beef. Some of these stone panels had a regal, deep blue cast. Early on the place won my vote as one of the finest interior spaces in Baltimore.

It was pure Teddy Roosevelt architecture. The ceiling, festooned with fancy plaster details, had what seemed like 1,000 unshaded light bulbs. There was a heroic-scale mural of Francis Scott Key and the Battle of Baltimore. I could imagine someone playing ragtime music on the front staircase's landing. There was once a second-floor dining room reserved for female patrons. You can be sure that potted palms would have screened off this chamber.

In its glory years, when it was arguably the most successful restaurants in Baltimore, Horn's was a very democratic place. Alex. Brown's most successful stock salesmen sat alongside postal workers and government clerks. Figures from The Block talked about the daily double at another table. There were so many politicians on hand that you could have held a City Council meeting.

The restaurant was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That front revolving door never stopped turning.

Because the place was so graciously designed (maybe it was the high ceiling), Horn's possessed a certain refined tone, an air of dignity, a sense that this was one serious place to order your fried eggplant or a chicken biscuit sandwich. Horn's was a classic example of the busy urban restaurant, a place that fed the masses but had better food than a cafeteria and was less expensive than a white-tablecloth operation.

Often I went in, hung up my coat on one of the hooks that ran along the wall and took a seat on a bentwood chair. Before long, I'd be looking at the regulars. Some had the faces of a Grant Woods picture. There were Edward Hopper loners. There were Daumier characters. They all looked and spoke Baltimore.

It was a restaurant my grandfather, Edward Jacques Monaghan, loved. I think every trip he made downtown included a stop here, if only for a scoop of ice cream and a cup of Horn's famous coffee. In fact, it was the one restaurant that my whole family endorsed. If there was ever a discussion about where to go for dinner, Horn's no-nonsense fare could please the entire finicky household. Then, when it was time to leave, there would be a request for the waitress to pack up a couple of quarts of ice cream for at-home consumption.

My mother once made the observation that local ice cream had character. Horn's fit this description, because no competitor's ever tasted like it. This ice cream, made on the premises by some master dairyman, had tiny crystals of ice in it, creating a soothing and pleasingly unusual consistency. I can still taste the coffee, chocolate and vanilla flavors. Of all the sadly departed (and warmly remembered) Baltimore foods I knew in the 1950s and '60s, I'd put Horn's ice cream at the top of my bring-back list.

As a child taken there by my elders, I was often transfixed by the hum and pace of the restaurant. It was a setting that mirrored the busy urban traffic outside the front plate-glass window -- the street newsboys, the clanging streetcars, the press of the lunchtime customer surge.

The presence of all the marble and plaster amplified the clattering of silverware. Porters dressed in their white, cotton work clothes pulled stainless steel racks of water glasses from the dumbwaiter.

You paid your bill at a deep orange, marble counter. A woman cashier, who perpetually wore her hair in a 1930s wave, punched up the tab. Your change slid down a black metal chute. There was always a box of cigars there if you wanted a smoke after your dinner. If you were really a glutton for punishment, there was also a gigantic scale. It cost a penny to check your weight.

Everyone had a favorite waiter or waitress. I recall a waitress named Claudia and another known as Miss Mary. A famous counterman was named Kelly. It was said he'd ask you if you wanted "a little stick" in your coffee, an Irish term for a shot of hooch he kept behind his counter for certain customers. Carl Horn, grandson of the founders, attired in his suit, watched over and approved all the food that left the kitchen and its steam tables.

Few Baltimoreans realized it, but our Horn & Horn founders were part of the same family that gave Philadelphia and New York its Horn & Hardart cafeteria chain and the famous Automat.

Here in Baltimore, there was no Automat. Not to worry, our little secret was the food at our Horn's. It was much tastier than the Horn & Hardart fare in Philly or New York.

Horn's closed its doors in 1976. The building became a fast-food franchise, then served some other restaurants. But no matter what was being served at 304 E. Baltimore St., the place was always Horn's.

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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