1950s-vintage diner serves notice that it may close The Bridge in downtown hasn't renewed lease due to expire Dec. 31

December 14, 1998|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Come next year, there may be one less diner in Baltimore, hon.

To the distress of downtown denizens who have haunted it for years, The Bridge, a quaint hole in the wall in the 300 block of N. Calvert St., is nearing the end of its lease -- it expires Dec. 31 -- and its owners say they plan to close up shop.

Renee and George Alatzas, who have owned The Bridge for 13 years, said the landlord, Peter Vailas, wants to nearly double the rent. "We tried to negotiate, but it just didn't work," said Renee Alatzas.

Vailas, who sold the business to them, said he hopes to sell the building to the couple, adding, "I don't want him [Alatzas] to leave."

Nor do scores of regular customers who have come to depend on its unpretentious fare and down-home atmosphere. "I'm kind of in shock," said one of them, lawyer Fred Charleston, as he sat at the pink-topped counter absorbing the news.

"I won't feel so bad after some lemonade," Charleston said.

The maker of the fresh lemonade, poured from pickle jars, was The Bridge's oldest-timer, Virginia Rooks. A tall woman addressed as "Miss Virginia," she started working for The Bridge at age 23 in 1961. Back then, she yelled her orders into the kitchen.

"I never had to write nothing down," said Rooks. Speaking of a lifetime working at The Bridge, she said in half-jest, "I got stuck here."

The customers served by Rooks and the other waitress, Jean Adamski, are a panoply of working men and women, black and white, many employed by the city, the state and Mercy Medical Center across the street. The lunch crowd invariably includes many a journalist from The Sun.

About a decade ago, to show his affection for the place, one newspaperman donated a period piece, an Evening Sun front page from April 1912 that announced "All Titanic Passengers Are Safe." The Alatzases will keep that and other pictures and mementos.

Given its name because of its location near the Orleans Street viaduct, The Bridge opened in 1954, and the eatery's prices have remained not too far removed from that era. It's not glamorous and Hollywood may never shoot a scene there, but the hot turkey sandwich with fries and gravy goes for $3.50.

"I take pride I can give those prices," said George Alatzas, the man in the white chef's clothes in the back kitchen, who makes soups from "shopping the specials" each day. "Meatloaf today, tomorrow meatballs," he said.

"We're like a little family," he said of his wife and four employees. Renee Alatzas said the feeling extends to customers, many of whom do not even have to tell Rooks and Adamski their orders. "If we don't see them for a while, we say: 'All right, where have you been?' " she said.

Most mornings for the past 12 years, Adamski has been arriving early to get the show going. "You gotta put turkeys in the oven," she said. Her philosophy of waitressing has been as plain as the food. "Pay attention to people. That's all you gotta do."

City police Lt. Richard Long said of the comically combative Adamski: "You could put her in a 'Seinfeld' episode." Eating with two colleagues, Long declared, "This is our spot, our table."

So what are the three customers going to do when The Bridge closes?

L "That is a good question. We haven't made plans," Long said.

"It's all about change," said Adamski, summing up the situation.

Pub Date: 12/14/98

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