Wrapping up the show

Minnick's: If there's no buyer, the establishment will be the latest of several once-successful restaurants in Dundalk to close.

August 27, 1999|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

CLARIFICATION: An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun may have left the impression that Minnick's Restaurant in Dundalk is about to close. Daniel "Junior" Minnick, co-owner, said that while the restaurant is for sale, there are no immediate plans for it to close.

Across the gleaming islands of linen-covered dining tables, Eleanor Minnick hurriedly runs through her daily check list for incoming epicures of Dundalk.

"Junie," she yells to her husband in the kitchen, her voice rising in that Patapsco River Basin way. "Did you remember to put the crab meat in the soup?"

But of course, Daniel "Junior" Minnick Jr. assures her. After 31 years, such a question.

And across the century, such a place. The business and property -- since 1919 a country store, jumping night club and popular restaurant -- is up for sale.

In the age of lighter cuisine, Tex-Mex, micro breweries and Thai spring rolls, Minnick's crowning dish of sour beef and dumplings sounds filling. And while trendy and upscale establishments have attracted customers to other restaurants around town, Minnick's has fewer regulars.

Even if the restaurant comes under a new owner, the colorful ghosts of the place, like John Henderson, a man who enjoyed pulling cars with his teeth on the parking lot, will certainly be remembered with a certain fondness.

"It's painful because my grandparents first owned the property starting in 1919, it's been in the family that long," said Daniel Minnick, 74, who has set no deadline for a sale. "But my wife and me, we're both up in age."

His brother, Joseph J. "Sonny" Minnick, the restaurant's other owner and a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, "is busy with the legislature. This is a young person's game, running a big place like this."

Unless a buyer emerges, Minnick's will be the latest Dundalk establishmenet in a line of once-successful restaurants to close its doors.

As the economic fortunes of Baltimore County's eastside began to droop in the 1960s, area restaurants were hit hard.

The Army folded its intelligence school at Fort Holabird; Western Electric and Lever Bros. shut down their factories; and the number of Bethlehem Steel plant workers dwindled from 30,000 to 6,000. The shipyard in Sparrows Point was sold and retooled for other work.

Traditional dining spots such as Karson's, near the General Motors auto plant, and the Brentwood Inn, with its spectacular wine cellar, closed. And with far fewer visiting salespeople, factory technicians and military personnel, the once-flourishing lunch crowds all but disappeared.

"Once that decline started, it was impossible to reverse," said Minnick, himself a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

To Richard Bell, general manager of Squire's Restaurant in Dundalk, "Minnick's holds a certain charm, and it will be sad to see it go. The little bar at Minnick's is my watering hole on the way home from work."

The business climate was far different in 1919 when Stanley and Helen Meleski, who started the business that became Minnick's, immigrated from Poland and purchased a generous parcel of land on Sollers Point Road. There, they farmed and opened a grocery store where the restaurant now stands.

Jam sessions

As their first step into the bar business, the Meleskis were granted a temporary beer license by the county in 1933 so the family could celebrate New Year's Eve. A year later, they got a permanent license and opened a saloon called Hollywood Inn.

"My parents took over a couple years later," Minnick said.

Over the next several decades, the Minnick family featured Sunday jam sessions where the area's best hoofers flocked and packed the dance floor. Among them was Minnick. After service in World War II, he jitterbugged his way to the 1945 finals in the New York Daily News Harvest Moon Ball held at Madison Square Garden.

In those days, characters like Henderson entertained Hollywood Inn patrons. In addition to pulling cars with his teeth, Henderson would drink beer while standing on his head.

"Aw, hell, it was only for a couple of feet," Minnick explained.

In the 1950s, Minnick and his brother Joseph took over the business. They brought bands into the club four nights a week, groups such as Reds Popoli, the Hi-Fives and Shirley and Mickey Fields. On Sunday afternoons, up to 400 people bopped at the Hollywood.

"It was wall-to-wall people in the prime of that place," said Bill Jamison, a Dundalk resident and retired promotional executive for Capitol Records. "It was like the best dancers trying to outdo one another. They did a bunch of styles like the jitterbug, the shag."

`Fun in itself'

When John Pauline returned from combat in the South Pacific during World War II, he became close friends with Daniel Minnick. Pauline eventually became the doorman and enjoys the memories of dancing with his wife, the late Catherine Pauline, at Hollywood Inn jam sessions.

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