Down-home cafe comes with a view for miles

Meals: A Hampden restaurant atop an apartment building for seniors offers comfort food served with a panorama of the city.

March 18, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

For a room with a great view, you don't have to go down to the harbor. Just head to Hampden. At Bobbi Jo's Rooftop Cafe at 3838 Roland Ave., a complete city panorama is served up with hearty meals that make no concession to culinary fashion or cholesterol counters.

Hot cakes for breakfast, a fried oyster platter for lunch and pork chops or Hungarian goulash for dinner are among the dishes featured on the menu, aimed at pleasing the senior citizens who live in the 15-story high-rise on top of which the cafe is perched. Forget about cappuccino, but you can find coffee with plenty of cream.

"You see some beautiful things up here. You can see the Key Bridge as pretty as can be," says proprietor Bobbi Jo Fox, a 55-year-old great-grandmother who wears her blonde hair in a ponytail.

Like Fox herself, many of the regular diners hail from Hampden, a gradually gentrifying but still close-knit blue-collar community in North Baltimore.

Every once in a while, they will dance a waltz or sing along with the likes of Tennessee Ernie Ford, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams and Ray Charles -- records that Fox plays on a vintage phonograph.

Fox opened her restaurant, a long-held dream, in June during the midst of an economic downturn. Before that, she owned and operated a small deli on nearby Ash and West 36th streets.

"It was scary, the biggest risk I've ever taken," Fox said of the venture. "It [cost] everything we had."

So far, the new business in which she plowed her family's life savings of $7,000 is staying afloat. It's hard work and cause for worry, especially since her husband, Earl Fox, lost a skilled, well-paying machinist job in 2002. But opening the cafe was a chance they felt she had to take.

"Nights, I don't sleep too good," Bobbi Jo Fox said during a pause from kitchen work. "There are bills, taxes, insurance, linens, the soda machine and wondering, `Do I hire someone?' "

The sign outside is missing a few letters, so it's easy to miss for those who don't know the cafe is there. The 1964 building, Saint Mary's Roland View Towers, is a long walk from the well-traveled West 36th Street "Avenue" boutiques, cafes and galleries. The church-affiliated high-rise, built for seniors with a federal loan, offers apartments with rents ranging from $326 to $550 a month. It faces an antiques shop and overlooks a 19th-century church cemetery next door.

"All the fancy things they do on the Avenue, that's fine, but a lot of people want down-home meatloaf, dumplings and all- you-can-eat spaghetti and fried chicken," Fox said. "Elegance with a hometown touch, that's what I was going for."

Bobbi Jo's seats 72 people in its main room, which holds 25 tables set with white and wine-colored tablecloths. The walls are painted light pink. Lunch and dinner entrees range from $8 to $20.

Most customers come by elevator from their apartments in the building and are old enough to be Fox's parents. Dinner starts at 3 p.m., for those like James A. Naylor, 82, who like to eat early.

"I beat the rush," Naylor said on a recent afternoon over his first course of Maryland crab soup. "I enjoy these people. We're all family and get along fine. They tolerate me, anyway, and try to fatten me up."

A retired metal worker, Naylor was born and raised in Hampden. "I just can't leave the neighborhood," he said wryly.

Fox said she enjoys the company of older people and understands them because she once took care of her aging parents. "The alarm bell in their stomach goes off," she said of the afternoon dinner traffic.

She addresses elderly customers in a way that shows deference, using their first names with a "Mr." or "Miss" in front, as in "Mr. Jim loves his fish."

The seniors, in turn, treat Fox in a near-familial way.

Shirley Fair, 73, said, "I talk her into making bread pudding all the time."

Fox, an experienced cook, can make bread pudding in a heartbeat, but it's not a dessert she likes as much as butterscotch pudding. A rich peanut butter-and-chocolate concoction with angel's and devil's food cake (from a local bakery) is something she calls "heaven and hell -- heaven on the lips, hell on the hips."

Fair, another longtime Hampden resident, said sunset is a major draw. "It's the most gorgeous view, especially when the sun goes down. Every night fascinates me, and it's even beautiful in the rain."

Her friend Delcie Wiles, an 82-year-old widow who has lived in the building for 15 years, agreed as they lunched. "You can see the ships out on the harbor," she said.

For elderly residents who do not drive and cannot walk far, a common meeting place for meals contributes to the community's wellbeing, said the apartment house's manager, Arthur Ruby. "People who socialize and get out are better off ," Ruby said. "There's a small core that have every meal up there."

The Roland Avenue apartment building also has a beauty parlor on the first floor that does brisk business.

For Fox, the best real estate in Hampden -- if not the city -- is on top of the building, and she expects to be there a good while longer. No stranger to struggle, she remembers moving to Baltimore as a young girl when her father, a machinist, was looking for work.

Her husband has lent a hand in doing dishes, mopping floors, peeling potatoes and taking out the trash when she needed him. He has, in the meantime, found another job.

Last week, though, Fox noticed business at Bobbi Jo's "picking up" steadily enough to hire a cook to lighten her seven-day-a-week load. She now has five employees for the first time, she said.

"There are more and more new faces, and that is definitely giving me hope," she said.

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