The House Special

Peggy Bailey, 'Baltimore's best waitress,' dishes up patter along with the food. It's just one way she shows she cares.

March 18, 2004|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

People stumble in off Frederick Road out of snow or rain or whatever else life's dealt them that week, and when they step in, they just stand for a moment, as if they've broken through a bubble.

They squint into the rosy glow of ruby fluorescent lights, a red Formica-top bar, crimson lace curtains and scarlet tablecloths. They call through the smoky din.

"Where's my Peggy?"

"I want Peggy!"

"I'm here to see Miss Peggy!"

A little lady dressed in a faux tuxedo of black and white comes shuffling through the noisy crowd in her Easy Spirit shoes like some kind of Super Mario, hefting a tray of stewed tomatoes and fried oyster sandwiches in one hand and a draft beer in the other.

The white hair, the pudgy cheeks, the nod and a wink - might as well be Mrs. Claus.

"Hey, Sugar" ... "Hey, Honey" ... "Hey, baby," she says, a slur of Southern tones.

At Jennings Cafe, a dining tradition in Catonsville since 1958, Peggy Bailey is about to part the curtain on a remarkable gustatory experience, one more about friendship and kinship than the meal and a deal. At Jennings, where she has earned the sobriquets "Mayor," "Queen," and "Legend," where she serves a room ("Peggy's Parlor") named in her honor and regularly pockets tips of 25 percent to 50 percent, the 61-year-old waitress has transcended the job.

Around here, she's everyone's family.

You can find her name in the Washington/Baltimore Zagat Restaurant Survey guide under the postscript for Jennings Cafe: "Ask for Peggy - `Baltimore's best waitress.'"

The guide's editor, Marty Katz, not only calls her "a peach and a dining treasure," but he drives all the way from Towson just to sit at one of her tables.

"She always asks about my father's health, asks about who's in the hospital or who's moved away, always has a compliment for someone who's been on a diet," he says.

He makes the pilgrimage every few weeks at dinnertime to see the same people he doesn't know, and they all make wisecracks at Peggy meant for everyone else to hear. She cuts through the paperwork and backlog in the kitchen by fixing things that can be plated up without cooking. She remembers people's favorite dishes and drinks, what they like on their burgers, what side dishes they prefer. She steers customers away from sumptuous-sounding main dishes or specials that she doesn't think are so good and raises an eyebrow if they order, in her opinion, the wrong item.

"She's not just a server," Katz says. "It reminds me of Chinese restaurants where you refer to your server as `little cousin' or `venerable aunt.' If you're one of her customers, you are de facto family," members of a loyal tribe.

Two guys at the end of the bar, Earl "Moe" Mosner and Bill Davis, both in their 60s, talk about her like love-smitten schoolboys.

Bill: My wife and I met her back in '68.

Moe: That's when I met her, '67. Waitressin' at the Candle Light - her and a girl named Marie.

Bill: She always set us at the window side of the dining room, and the drinks would be on the table when we got there.

Moe: She's been around ... what?

Bill: Thirty-seven years ... I'm sure you know she never writes anything down. She can wait on 20 people and never get a pencil out.

Moe: Hell of a memory.

Bill: Good gal.

Moe: Great gal! I knew her when she worked at the Middleborough Inn.

Bill: I knew her mother when she worked at Duffy's Tavern.

Mo: That's right, her mother waitressed with her, too.

Bill: Peggy grew up in North Carolina, but I'm sure you know that.

Moe: There's not a person in Catonsville that goes out at night who doesn't know her.

Moe: She comes to work every day, does her job, is kind to everybody and when she gets off she goes out and has a few drinks with the boys, goes home, gets up and the next day does it all over again. That's the kind of person she is. A sweetheart.

Bill: I could never even think of anything derogatory to say about her.

Moe: Well, I mean, she lives right across the street. She can walk from home to work. From work to the bar. From the bar, back home. That's pretty good, isn't it?

Bill: Couldn't be any more convenient.

Mo: You can't screw with Peggy. She's seen it all. ... Damn good gal. I love her.

Bill: We all love her.

The door opens, in comes Mickey Imbach. Duckpin bowling hall-of-famer. He has two women on his arms.

Mickey laughs when he sees Peggy. Since his stroke, his two daughters bring him in to visit Peggy every Wednesday. She sets his drink on the table without asking and puts in for a hot dog wrapped in baloney - mustard, not mayonnaise - without asking.

Behind them, Mary Kelly walks in with her mom, Ida Mae. Peggy hugs Ida Mae, noticing the oxygen tubes in her nose.

"Where've you been?!" Peggy asks, motioning to the tubes.

"Keeps me livin'," Ida Mae says.

Dolly Marvel, 87, brings her daughter and great-granddaughter. Shannon, who is 2, gets candied cherries. Her dad has known Peggy since Little League. They come all the way from Harford County to visit.

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