Grill warms up for fond farewell

Closing: Reluctant to let go of Kirby's Deli, one customer laments, `What am I going to do? I come over to see the other half of the family.'

February 01, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

"Dave's seat" will become just another lunch-counter stool. A little boy with cancer will miss the waitresses who know his love of chocolate milk and sliced-up hot dogs. And the hungry but short-changed may find an IOU won't buy a meal many other places.

After 30 greasy years at 410 W. Redwood St., Kirby's Deli will shut its doors today after ladling out the last of its cream of crab soup, a Friday staple at the institution on downtown Baltimore's west side. The landlord is selling the three-story building, putting deli owner Sam Sudano out of business.

Kirby's has stood sentry over the quiet street during a time of transition. Where garment workers once churned out suits and ties and hats, doctors now work and loft-dwellers live in grand brick buildings.

Over the years, many Kirby's customers - a crowd increasingly tied to the University of Maryland and its medical center - have faithfully zipped in for a quick bite or a cup of coffee, and the comfort that comes from eating among friends and familiar faces.

Old-timers toss out their years of loyalty the way some people mention their graduating class. Bernard Levy? Thirty years. Joyce Anderson, 17. David Crandall, who sits in "his" chair daily, an even quarter-century. So it's no surprise that the deli's demise has provoked emotions ranging from anger to denial, with a huge helping of sadness.

"A protest, that's what we need," said Beverly Nedd, huffing out the door with bagels, juice and coffee.

A Little Italy restaurateur plans to buy the building and open another inexpensive lunch place, Colleen's. To devotees, though, there's just one Kirby's, which is why they hope Sudano can find another spot nearby. He does not know if he can.

Just in case this is the end, crowds have swelled for what feels like a wake, only with the soon-to-be-deceased providing the food. They swarm through the front door next to the barred windows and weathered facade, then flow past the counter and into the dining room, with its faux-wood tables and faux-brick walls.

Cash-strapped Michele Voigt borrowed money so her 10-year-old son, R.J., could come one last time. The boy, who's being treated nearby for a rare form of cancer, used to eat at only two restaurants in town. When Planet Hollywood closed, that left Kirby's.

"I want them to stay open forever," R.J. said in a small voice quieted by neck surgery he underwent last July to remove a tumor.

That's impossible, Sudano said.

Rose Kirby, who started the deli with her late husband and still owns the building, wanted to raise Sudano's monthly rent from $2,800 to $3,900 - a price he couldn't pay selling $4.50 tuna sandwiches. Nor could he afford the $350,000 that restaurateur Gregory Orendorff, owner of Luigi Petti, said he is paying for the building.

To Sudano, 41, now in his third stint at the 130-seat deli, the shame of it is that business is good. "We're doing better than we've ever done," he said, clad in jeans, an apron and a Dale Earnhardt hat. "We're going out a winner, like Rocky Marciano."

Before disappearing into the kitchen to run the grill for the lunch rush, Sudano wondered how people would get by without his onion rings and cheese steaks. "Without Kirby's," he said, "your staple of grease is gone."

A trained electronics technician, Sudano got his first taste of Kirby's as an 18-year-old busboy. His boss was founder Edgar Kirby, a retired Baltimore police officer who walked Redwood Street when it was still a humming garment district.

Edgar, Rose and their children all worked at the deli, perfecting a paperless system: Customers, after eating, would walk up to the register and say what they'd had. Then one of the Kirbys would mentally tally the bill, tax and all.

Sudano left after two years in the early 1980s, returned as co-owner in the early 1990s and came back again in 1999. Other owners had varying degrees of success, but none had Sudano's style.

His simple secret: Dish out good food and treat people well. When Tony Green walked in yesterday, Sudano named his favorite: scrapple and egg on toast with ketchup. "Yup," said Green, a contractor working for the university.

Sudano and his staff of 10 know some people only by what they eat, including Mr. Kosher Hot Dog With Mustard and Raw Onions.

Firefighters and police officers could eat whatever they wanted at breakfast for just $2. Sudano invented other discounts on the spot, which he said made him "the Monty Hall of lunch." Those who forgot money could just add their IOU to a bulletin board.

The kindness has been returned: Sudano has swum at Joyce Anderson's pool and attended her husband's 40th birthday party.

Eugene Capezio, who works at the medical center, likened eating at Kirby's to "going to your favorite bartender."

"I'm coming in here to say congratulations when you open the new place," Capezio told Sudano. "I'm not saying goodbye, no way."

"Hey, I appreciate the outlook."

"Sam, what am I going to do? I come over to see the other half of the family."

Sudano seemed a bit embarrassed. "Gene, it's just a hamburger and hot dog joint. Let's put it in perspective."

But Sudano doesn't believe that. He clearly revels in the adoration. Lately he has been advertising the free coffee he'll serve when he opens today at 6 a.m. - when a local news television crew is supposed to arrive.

Bernard Levy, an associate professor at the university's Dental School, has been eating at Kirby's for three decades. He and his colleagues are likely to be there again today. But ask Levy what it all means, and he can't say.

"We've not been able to discuss it. It's very emotional."

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