'The decor is on the plate' Wilhelm's: The quaint, family-run restaurant holds fast to its 1930s ambience even as Baltimore County looks to beautify the district.

February 01, 1997|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Terri and Bill Coleman, proprietors of the venerable and eccentric Wilhelm's Restaurant on Wilson Point, finally succumbed.

After 60 years of family members serving sizzling steaks and legendary crab cakes, they caved in three years ago -- and installed air conditioning.

"The decor is on the plate; this isn't the Taj Mahal," Terri Coleman, 75, says of the southeastern Baltimore County restaurant, which just celebrated its 63rd anniversary on Dark Head Creek.

In an age of predictable franchised eateries, Wilhelm's clings stubbornly to another era. And while county officials propose dramatic changes nearby -- including a mini-Harborplace and demolition of the Chesapeake Village apartments -- Wilhelm's owners will happily stay frozen in time.

"Customers don't want us to change," says waitress Debbie Wilson, pointing to the original tile on the floor. "People come in from Pennsylvania, Florida. We have a couple of generations who've eaten here."

Regulars at Wilhelm's know the food is consistently good, from the steaks to the stewed tomatoes and bread pudding Terri Coleman makes from scratch. They also remember to duck -- the ceiling clearance ranges from about 6 feet 5 inches to just over 6 feet.

Strangers critical of Wilhelm's quirkiness are in for a rude awakening. When one visitor sat down recently for dinner and mentioned that the place needed a face lift, she was politely asked to leave.

At the restaurant's entrance, customers file past a refrigerated showcase from which they can select a porterhouse or New York strip that gets plopped on a plate, slapped with gobs of margarine and cooked at medium heat. And, there is a sinful cream of crab soup that makes taste buds coo and arteries nearly clamp shut.

Always, customers are reminded of former house rules on signs that went up when Wilhelm's opened in 1934. Declares one lighted sign: "If you haven't time please do not place order." Says another: "Children must be seated at all times, C. Wilhelm."

This last stern warning is traced to the restaurant's original owner, Charlotte Henrietta Wilhelm, also known as Aunt Emma. Her husband, William, co-owned Union Stockyards in South Baltimore and they resided in style in a 26-room mansion in Elkridge.

"They had Saturday night parties there, big bands, and served wine grown in their own vineyards," says Bill Coleman, 80, the original owner's nephew.

When Aunt Emma's husband died in 1931, she bought the property on Dark Head Creek and had a house built and a cellar dug. In 1934, she applied for a liquor license and turned part of the building into a restaurant and tavern.

"She was a very large-boned woman, very strict in her ways and had mean dogs," Bill Coleman recalls.

His wife adds, "Aunt Emma had her own ways. She said the place never should be changed, and it pretty much hasn't."

Born in Johnstown, Pa., Terri Coleman came by train to Baltimore in 1941 to get a job at the Glenn L. Martin defense plant in Middle River, just as World War II erupted. Instead, she found work at a bakery and Montgomery Ward, and eventually went to Koppers Co. to build 37 mm gun mounts and bombs.

She met Bill Coleman at Koppers, but he soon went to war. In the Normandy invasion of June 1944, he made seven trips across the English Channel as a merchant marine lieutenant, ferrying U.S. Army Rangers to the cliffs of the French coast.

"I've never seen water so red; they took terrible casualties," he said. And he carried the wounded survivors back to England.

He came home and married Terri on June 18, 1944, and immediately went back to war.

Meanwhile, Middle River was experiencing a boom -- a time when a young Navy officer named Richard M. Nixon, stationed at Martin's, ate frequently at Wilhelm's and resided around the corner at 900 Wilson Point Road.

"Besides the restaurant and bar, Aunt Emma had 10 beds in the building that she rented to Martin workers in three shifts. The sheets never got cold," Bill Coleman says.

In those days, Wilhelm's was called Hangar Five, a reference to its popularity with the workers at Martin's, which had four large airplane hangars. "There was a player piano here, and they were three-deep at the bar at most times, Aunt Emma told us," Terri Coleman says.

Wilhelm's draw has always been simple: good food and plenty of it. But the place almost folded in 1985, when Aunt Emma died at 92, nearly broke. Wilhelm's was $40,000 in debt to breweries, a meat company and in back taxes.

"It was really strange because when we came into the house, the place was turned inside out," Bill Coleman says. "The rugs were rolled up, my uncle's diamond ring was gone, Aunt Emma's jewelry -- everything gone. It's a mystery what happened to her money."

The Colemans nearly exhausted their savings to pay the business debts, and took over the operation.

"My philosophy is nobody should leave our restaurant hungry," says Terri Coleman, who makes many of the dishes and confesses to being far less stern than her predecessor.

When a bar patron has had too much to drink, she gently approaches the tipsy customer, exchanges a pleasant greeting and then says a firm "Good night."

"Even with the children, I don't like to be mean to them if they are rowdy," she says. "I like to spoil them. If they are running around, I sit them down at my desk, give them a Shirley Temple. I tell them I love them dearly but they must sit down so other people can eat and enjoy their meals."

As testimony, she has hung dozens of children's pictures on a back wall of the restaurant.

For Tony Appel, owner of the nearby Stansbury Yacht Basin, the place is an institution. "My family has gone there, I still go there," says Appel.

"I like it because of the food and that I'm not 6 feet tall and don't have to keep my head down walking through the place."

Pub Date: 2/01/97

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