Lenny's Last Call

On New Years Eve, restaurateur Lenny Kaplan will ring in a new era as he turns over the famous Polo Grill to his son-in-law Rob Freeman.

December 30, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Lenny Kaplan, an elite name on the Baltimore restaurant scene, is not one to see the glass half empty. Of course, he might wonder if the glass could be a tad more polished, or served quicker, or filled exactly to the level it's always been filled, or offered in better lighting, or on a tablecloth spread with greater precision, or generally represent absolutely his quite well-defined notion of what the customer wants in a glass.

This is something of what makes Lenny, Lenny - a man noted both for setting high standards and occasionally chewing heads off the help. Perhaps this striving lies beneath the wistfulness Kaplan conveys one evening in his waning days as owner of the Polo Grill at the Inn at the Colonnade. After finishing a plate of rockfish with lobster sauce and steamed spinach on the side, he says he has relished his four decades in the restaurant business, has enjoyed feelings of success.

And yet.

"I have been lucky to be relatively successful," says Kaplan. And he repeats: "relatively."

On New Year's Eve, he'll do it one last time. The trim 65-year-old will ride the elevator down from the ninth-floor apartment he shares with his wife and restaurant co-host, Gail. He'll turn out in one dapper outfit or another to work the floor with that megawatt smile and his acute sense of doings around him that made him a successful basketball point guard in high school and college. It's the point guard who sets the play, ensures everyone's where they're supposed to be, anticipates next moves.

So it goes for the "front-of-the-house man," as they say in restaurant talk.

If he's not filling in for the chef in an emergency, find him day and night working the floor or sitting at the Polo Grill bar, first stool facing the restaurant, where he eyes the dining room like an air traffic controller watching radar. If by chance he takes a meal with friends, they can depend on many conversational interruptions as Kaplan prods his staff.

"In the middle, he'll say, `Table 19 needs water,' `Table 12 is waiting for their check,' " says Julius Zulver, who has known the Kaplans for about 30 years.

"It's the details," says Kaplan, who opened the Polo Grill in 1990. "Whatever they are. I don't think I'm picayune. I'm picky about the same details."

Forty-three years, several successes, one conspicuous failure at Lennys Chop House - countless details. Now it comes time for Kaplan, who once took over the renowned Pimlico Hotel restaurant from his father-in-law, to turn things over to his son-in-law. Rob Freeman, 37, who has been general manager since 1997, assumes ownership of the Polo Grill on Wednesday.

In months, the Polo Grill will be no more. While a few signature dishes may remain - fried lobster tail, for instance - Freeman says in the spring, he'll unveil a new name, a new lower-priced menu, a new expanded bar with a separate entrance and certain decor changes. Most of the particulars are being withheld until further notice, but clearly the Kaplans will depart their public roles.

Kaplan's exit marks an era ending, if only by virtue of his association with a couple of the city's most popular restaurants: the old Pimlico Hotel on Park Heights Avenue and the Polo Grill. Each in its day emerged as a center of Baltimore sociability and status.

January's "Table Scraps" column in Restaurant Digest, a regional food service industry magazine, notes Kaplan's departure, calling the Pimlico Hotel "a landmark eatery if ever there was one," and referring to the Polo Grill as "the place to be seen."

A rock's throw from the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, the Polo Grill belongs in the American scrapbook alongside advertisements by Ralph Lauren, a man born Lifshitz who also understood "WASP" as an appealing brand identity. The antique-look prints on the walls showing white men playing polo and golf, the pool-table colored wall fabric, the cherry wood paneling - it all suggests the sort of patrician club that might have barred a Kaplan or Lifshitz in less enlightened days. Say, around the time Gail's father, Leon Shavitz, and Nathan Herr opened Nates & Leon's delicatessen on North Avenue in the 1930s.

Things have come along. At the Polo Grill now, there are little signs on each table announcing the end of the Kaplan era, summarizing the family restaurant history and suggesting a cultural story: "From Knishes to Coffey Salads to Fried Lobster."

The Pimlico - where waitress Claudia Coffey created the eponymous melange of tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, chopped iceberg lettuce, onion, Parmesan cheese and seasonings - was a child of 1950s American eating, with notable innovations by Shavitz. The menu thick as a U.S. road atlas included everything from chops to chow mein. Kaplan tells how Shavitz added Chinese food to the menu, but not before he went up to New York and hired a Chinese chef to assure authenticity.

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