Rebecca Poag, restaurant owner-cook for 25 years on The Avenue, dies at 90

January 29, 1999|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

At Rebecca Poag's All Peoples Dining Room on Pennsylvania Avenue, patrons could get a helping of oxtail stew for less than a dollar, a bowl of beans for a quarter and perhaps the city's best short ribs meal for a buck and a half.

With each meal came a dose of Mrs. Poag's southern hospitality. As owner of the West Baltimore restaurant, she tastefully blended good times and good food for more than 25 years.

Mrs. Poag, who lived in West Baltimore for more than 60 years, died Saturday from complications of a stroke at Liberty Medical Center. She was 90.

"It was a lot of good home cooking there," said her niece, Edna Grandy of Baltimore, who worked as a waitress and dishwasher at the All Peoples Dining Room for many years. "She loved meeting people and cooking."

Mrs. Poag owned the restaurant from the late 1940s until 1975, when it was demolished as part of urban renewal on Pennsylvania Avenue, known as The Avenue.

A solidly built woman whom patrons called "Mrs. Smiley" (her first married name was Smyre), Mrs. Poag was the restaurant's cook (everything from scratch), cashier, accountant and custodian. She also was its bouncer and lived in an apartment upstairs.

"Oh yeah, if anyone acted ugly, she'd throw them out," Ms. Grandy said. "She'd say, `Now look, you know I don't have that in here' and walk them to the door."

But Mrs. Poag didn't need to take extreme measures with most unruly customers, diners recalled.

"She was the nicest person you could imagine -- until you did something wrong," said Ralph Berry, a former patron who lives near the restaurant's former location. "She'd give you the look and that meant `Watch it, Jack!' -- and it wasn't a good idea to test her."

The homey restaurant was in the 1000 block of Pennsylvania Ave. -- not far from the renowned Royal Theater. It had nine booths, two tables and a juke box, which seemed to play nonstop.

Mrs. Poag's business thrived during The Avenue's heyday, when large crowds came to its numerous clubs and bars. Nationally known acts performed there -- and stopped by for a bite.

Among the notables who dined were singer Roy Hamilton, tap dancer Bill Bailey, members of the Orioles singing group, and local performer Flink Johnson.

"There were other restaurants on The Avenue, but they just weren't as good," Mr. Berry said. "That's no knock at other restaurants. Hers was just better."

A native of Macklenburg, N.C., the former Rebecca Walker quit school in the eighth grade to work in her family's cotton and tobacco fields. She moved to Baltimore in 1936 and worked as a seamstress and performed domestic work before she opened her restaurant. She married Jesse Smyre in 1929; he died in 1972. She married John H. Poag in 1976; he died in the late 1970s.

The changing face of the area forced the business to close, but friends and relatives said Mrs. Poag was ready to retire.

"I just think she was ready," Ms. Grandy said. "But she still had the best food and prices around. Even when she closed, you could get a bowl of beans and two biscuits for 30 cents."

Services were held yesterday at United House of Prayer.

In addition to her niece, she is survived by two sisters, Mabel Jackson of New York City and Luvina Smyre of Salisbury, N.C.

Pub Date: 1/29/99

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