Nostalgic trip through Marconi's

Lunch: The Saratoga Street restaurant is moving. Whether that will change its atmosphere remains to be seen.

March 02, 2000|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Piece by piece, Baltimore is being sold off before our very eyes -- from Haussner's ball o' string to Frank Pembleton's houndstooth overcoat.

So, if Peter Angelos doesn't mind, we'll take that claw-foot bath tub shipwrecked on its side up on the fourth floor of Maison Marconi, the ancient Saratoga Street restaurant he just bought and plans to relocate sometime in the next year.

Marconi's will move just a few blocks away, but its current warhorse of a building will be put out to pasture.

Angelos -- attorney, Orioles owner and point man for several downtown revitalization projects -- announced this week his purchase of the 80-year-old Marconi's, well-known for its teardrop chandeliers, dishes such as Lobster Cardinal and guest list headlined by such names as H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis. Plans are to reopen it in new digs at one of Angelos' Charles street projects.

Yesterday at Marconi's, no one seemed broken up by the news of the sale or the pending move. Lunching ladies and salt-and-pepper-haired businessmen took their favorite tables. And, per custom, head waiter Ali Morsy knew everybody's name and drink order by heart. One imagines lunchtime on Wednesday had the same taste and feel of lunchtimes from long ago.

Still, given the news, we invited ourselves to lunch. But fear not -- this is not another restaurant obit. This is not one of those neighborhood-diner-is-closing tales, where everyone says everything except to acknowledge that the service and food were really lousy. Marconi's has perfectly fine food, if you like $30 lobster lunches (which we do, we do).

Before we spilled anything on the linen tablecloths, we explored the building at 106 W. Saratoga. After all, it's the building that the owner, employees and customers are saying goodbye to; the menu and name will stay the same. The question is whether tradition can be transplanted without springing any permanent leaks.

"If Haussner's had moved, would it still have been Haussner's?" wonders Marconi's owner, Ilene Booke, who seems quite OK with moving from the old place. "There are certainly grand places in new buildings. This is a way of moving forward and preserving what we have."

Above the genteel dining room are many floors in ascending order of disrepair. If these wall-papered walls could talk, they'd say, "Check, please." If Burkittsville still doesn't work out, the "Blair Witch" producers could film some creepy stuff for the sequel way up inside Marconi's.

"Do you need a flashlight? It's rickety up there," Booke says. She's not even sure exactly how many floors the building has. The stairway opens to room after small room, their occupants long gone. Booke thinks this was a bed-and-breakfast before becoming a restaurant in 1920.

Among the many stories, old menus (Lobster Cardinal was just $1.50 once) and newspaper clippings about the building, an item in a 1975 National Geographic is a favorite of Booke's. In a story called "Baltimore: The Hidden City," the magazine reported that Rudolph Valentino once worked at Marconi's and, better yet, lived upstairs where we stand now.

How tasty. Imagine Valentino, the great lover on the silent screen, retiring to his modest bed and bath after a long night of toting brandied peaches and fried eggplant to Baltimore's high society. Did he entertain guests here? Could this be his bear-claw tub?

Now the rooms are nothing but warped floor boards, peeling paint, disconnected commodes. (Why are old brooms always left standing in old fallen-down rooms? Just more evidence somebody gave up trying a long time ago.) In one room, someone has written an obscenity most unbecoming to the memory of the great Valentino.

We can bear no more.

On to lunch and the Lobster Cardinal -- now $23. Just as we were prepared to jot down something snide about the mystery-shade-of-green paint job in the dining room, head waiter Morsy presents an entire lobster. The gutted crustacean is a canoe of lobster chunks in cream, sherry and cheese. "Enjoy your dinner," Morsy says.

It's lunch -- but we know what he means. Lunch here is like dinner. Marconi's is the kind of place that if you were young and with a date, you'd pray she didn't order an appetizer. Then again, if you were young and with a date, you probably wouldn't be eating at Marconi's, which is sort of a 4-star Woman's Industrial Exchange. No offense.

When Marconi's moves, maybe nothing will change -- or maybe just something small and personal. It's all in the eye and belly of the customer.

Eventually, though, city landmarks all seem to perish or get re-potted. And people -- the keepers and lovers of these landmarks -- try to hang on to tell their tales. Like the one that says Valentino himself once worked and lived at a restaurant called Marconi's, which was located on Saratoga Street for the longest time.

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