Perfectly round Circle will now scoop ice cream

Dundalk: Drive-in restaurant famous for barbecue prospered for a half-century.

April 22, 2000|By Jacques Kelly

IN LESS THAN an afternoon's time, the big letters that spelled out BAR-B-Q came down Thursday from the top of the Circle, that great 1947 Highlandtown-Dundalk destination drive-in restaurant.

The Circle property, at Dundalk Avenue and Gusryan Street, is in transition. It closed as a restaurant two years ago, but in a week or so, it is slated to make its debut as a Petrucci Ice Cream Co. shop.

And the perfectly round little landmark -- 38 feet in diameter -- will remain, a blessing to those who consider parts of Baltimore their own personal property.

Like so many Baltimore institutions with quirks and odd personalities, the Circle was open only at night and it didn't get busy until after 10. It was also a place you had to be introduced to by friends or family. It never advertised.

The Circle opened July 3, 1947. Its owner, Francis E. Gretz, was there that night, and he was there this week when his letters came down. (For the record, there were about 1,000 orange light bulbs in the letters.)

Gretz said he was originally going to open the Circle daily at the lunch hour but soon found he did his top business at that magic time between 2 and 3 in the morning.

The Circle became a favorite nocturnal address. And throughout its years, it had only 11 items on the menu -- the sweet pork barbecue, hamburgers, cheeseburgers and cheese steaks.

On a visit there on a frosty fall night nearly eight years ago, I recall the ordeal that went into making the milkshakes.

For decades a woman named Audrey worked behind the Circle's counter. She was also the head mixologist. The milkshakes were real and made from half gallons of partially frozen milk. As her supply grew low, she went to the freezer and pulled out a fresh plastic jug. Then she pounded it with a rubber-headed mallet to break up the solid. She dumped the chunks into the blender, adding ice cream and chocolate flavoring. I jumped back every time Audrey turned on the switch. The mix erupted in a frothy blast. I am sure that fast-food efficiency experts would have cast a critical eye at the Circle. Its food was just too labor-intensive and real. I guess that's what kept its customers loyal.

The good news is that the Circle building will stand. It's been leased by Bud Parr, who will reopen the spot as a Petrucci soft-serve ice cream shop. Parr, who grew up on Parkside Drive off Belair Road, was himself a Circle fan.

"A day hardly goes by that someone doesn't stop in while we're working or call me to make sure I'm not tearing the building down or throwing the signage away," Parr said. "I have heard more stories about parents' dates, scuffles on the parking lot and the street rods and their racing."

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