Fliers landed at The Roost

Tradition: Pilots and astronauts have always found the `right stuff' at this bar in St. Mary's County

July 31, 1999|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN COLUMNIST

The airplane hanging over my head makes me uneasy, but the regulars at The Roost restaurant in St. Mary's County don't seem to notice it. People in this part of Southern Maryland are used to sharing the landscape with planes.

I notice the roar of Navy jets streaking through the skies as soon as I drive toward Lexington Park on my gustatory tour of the state. It is not surprising that a model of a V-22 Osprey plane looms over my head in The Roost's bar.

Ever since The Roost opened 52 years ago, it has been a favorite eating spot and watering hole for Navy pilots. "Pax River," the shorthand locals use for the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, is only a few blocks away.

At one time, flight instructors at the base supposedly dismissed classes by telling their charges to reconvene at The Roost. Pax River alumni -- including a few astronauts -- still drop in to say hello and see if their hats are hanging from the ceiling.

It is tradition for patrons to leave a memento behind, says Johnny Dolak, who presides over the bar and the history.

"Been here since the beginning, since 1947," says the peppery, balding bartender.

He points out autographed photographs of astronauts Scott Carpenter, Alan Shepard and John Glenn. They are Pax River guys, who had "The Right Stuff" and a fondness for this joint, according to notes written on the photos.

Thirty years ago, The Roost was a rip-roaring bar, Dolak says. "From early in the morning until late at night, the bar would be filled with white hats," he says, referring to the headgear worn by the aviators.

Since then, the Navy and The Roost have changed. "Now, we are more of a family restaurant," he says, pointing toward an adjoining dining room with tables covered in crisp white cloths.

I sit in Dolak's domain, the bar, where there still is plenty of Navy fly-boy bravado and memorabilia in the air. Officers' hats, baseball caps and a helmet or two left by test pilots hang behind the bar. Model airplanes, similar to the ones every 12-year-old boy used to have in his room, are suspended from the ceiling.

Dolak encourages these donations from regulars. "I tell them to give me something so we can remember you when you are gone," he says.

The menu offers standard fare -- steak, prime rib and burgers -- some with unusual names.

A chili dish, Chili Willie, is named after the restaurant's owner, William Harris. The Fran Burger honors Harris' father.

I order a "Hi-Pockets," a grilled cheese sandwich with bacon, tomato and onions on toasted pumpernickel. The sandwich gets its name from the nephew of a former piano player, Dolak says. The nephew was so tall that the pockets of his pants seemed unusually high, so people called him "Hi-Pockets."

No matter how the name originated, the sandwich is very good.

The Roost is my second eating stop in Lexington Park. For breakfast, I have great home fries at Linda's Cafe, a restaurant featuring "down home cooking." It is on Tulagi Place, named after a battleship.

"All the streets in this part of town are named after ships," explains cafe owner Linda Palchinsky.

Palchinsky runs a busy ship. Her 85-seat cafe opens at 6 in the morning and goes full throttle with three cooks and four waitresses until 8 at night. I take a seat at the counter. As soon as I sit down, a waitress takes my order, calls me darlin' and brings me a cup of hot coffee.

What more could a man want, except home fries?

The cafe serves home fries all day. "We go through about 300 pounds of potatoes a day," Palchinsky says. "We have somebody in the back boiling and peeling them."

I enjoy a hefty serving of fries with a ham omelet, more coffee and a few "darlins'." I leave Linda's ready to face the world.

After my big breakfast and, later, my sizable lunch, I feel like an overweight truck. This is not a good feeling as I drive across the Gov. Thomas Johnson Bridge.

As I venture along the high, narrow, two-lane span over the Patuxent River, I recall that the bridge was closed suddenly a few years ago when inspectors found cracks in it.

I hold my breath as I cross to make myself lighter.

When I make it without collapsing the bridge, I vow to reform and eat lighter fare. I have couscous salad with vegetables and raisins at the CD Cafe in Solomons.

The one-room, 32-seat cafe sits in the front of the Avondale Center, a collection of shops and offices overlooking the Patuxent. I start off with a cup of superb melon soup.

The soup, made with peaches, melons and kiwi, is refreshing without being too sweet. It is the creation of waiter Kevin Jeffrey, a graduate of Baltimore International College.

Owners Catherine File and Deborah Witmer also went to culinary schools, File in Baltimore and Witmer in Portland, Ore. The duo, who have been in business almost four years, like to venture beyond traditional cooking, coming up with dishes that are a "little bit different" and "are not fried," they say.

My meal of fruit and fiber is outstanding, full of clean, fresh flavors. Then File tempts me with a slice of chocolate trifle.

My vow to eat less goes out the window. I have a glass of wine. I eat the chocolate trifle. To lead a full life, you need a full stomach.

Look for the final segment of Rob Kasper's eating odyssey on Monday in the Today section. Coming Monday: A grand finale of kosher bagels, steak tacos and peach ice cream.

Reprints of this series are available for $9.95.

To order, please call SunSource at 410-332-6800.

Something in the air

Day 9 1. The Roost

21736 Great Mills Road

Lexington Park

301-863-5051

2. Linda's Cafe

27 Tulagi Place

Lexington Park

301-862-3544

3. CD Cafe

14350 Solomons Island Road

Solomons

410-326-3877

Pub Date: 7/31/99

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