Bar owners leaving the city for fun, serenity of Shore

July 14, 2004|By ROB KASPER

KELLY SHERIDAN and his wife, Mary, are finally making the jump, selling Kelly's, the Eastern Avenue bar and restaurant where for the past 18 years they have served as proprietors, cooks, raconteurs and karaoke singers.

Their goodbye has been a long one. There was a rousing send-off party in April, but then a deal for the restaurant's sale collapsed. Late last month, a sale of the place at auction was canceled. But this time it looks as if the Sheridans really are headed out of town. The couple, who live in an apartment above the business, closed the restaurant last weekend so they could move their belongings before the new owner, Kelly Holman, takes over.

"I am not going to change the name," said Holman, who lives in the neighborhood and worked at the bar in 1991. She holds two undergraduate degrees, in history and jurisprudence, has worked at a variety of Baltimore restaurants and has always wanted to own a neighborhood bar. Holman said she doesn't plan to change much, other than adding a kid's menu.

Kelly and Mary say, fond as they are of East Baltimore, they can't wait to get to their Eastern Shore home, where they will be surrounded by corn, birds and serenity.

Their departure should have Baltimore crab cognoscenti grieving over the demise of a kitchen that steamed its crabs the old-fashioned way - to order, over pots of beer. Soup lovers should be beside themselves, mourning the loss of a cream of crab with lumps of crab meat bigger than soup spoons.

Neighbors who dwell in the rowhouses ringing Patterson Park should be crying in their Natty Bohs about the passing of a spot that lived up to the mythic characteristics of the "real Baltimore neighborhood bar," a joint where the regulars have favorite barstools, where no cursing is allowed and where customers are called by their first names.

Kelly, who is closing in on his 56th birthday, will have no part of such sloppy sentiment. Rather than wallowing in days gone by, he says he is looking forward to having weekends off, to conversing with family members from some vantage point other than from behind the bar.

"People say, `Kel, you're going away,'" he told me one recent afternoon as he took my lunch order. "I say, `We're not dead, we're not going out to pasture. We're just going to Delaware.' "

Millsboro, Del., to be exact, to a 5-acre plot with geese and ducks, a cornfield and a home that is part trailer and part frame construction. "It is a real smile," he says describing the 1972 structure, adding that the whole spread "looks like the Ponderosa."

He admits that he and Mary might have "owners' syndrome." This, he says, is a malady afflicting sole proprietors of restaurants. They tire of tackling the long list of daily duties, ranging from cleaning restrooms to sorting crabs, that running the business entails.

"We have been working really hard for other people and have decided to do something for ourselves," he says. Mary adds that she can handle "doing nothing but fun for a while."

When I visited Kelly's recently, I did not encounter any customers weeping in their brews. But I did find several who said they will miss Kelly and Mary, and said this twosome was good at running a neighborhood joint, at serving homemade food and making customers feel at home.

"The bar is the owner," said Margot Rome.

The afternoon I was in Kelly's, Rome and Nancy "Q" Beatty were sitting, waiting for their lunch, a juicy cheeseburger and crisp chicken wings, to emerge from Mary's kitchen. The two said they had wandered into Kelly's three years ago right after buying a house around the corner on Chester Street.

"Kelly came up to us and said, `Welcome to the 'hood,'" Beatty said, and they have been coming back ever since.

When I called Marty Katz, a freelance photographer and an avid eater to tell him about Kelly's leaving, Katz said he would miss the place's steamed crabs and its lively conversation. Katz said he "got the gig" a few years back of working as Maryland editor for the Zagat restaurant guide after he took Tim and Nina Zagat on a tour of Baltimore eateries, including Kelly's.

Reached by telephone at his office in Manhattan, Tim Zagat said he remembered his visit to Kelly's as "a spectacular evening of endless hammering and good eating. It proves you don't to go fancy to have a great meal."

Unlike large crab houses that use a boilerlike process called "live steam" to prepare crabs, Kelly's steamed his over pots containing spices and beer. "Beer was Kelly's religion," Katz said, adding Kelly was a stickler for serving the crabs as soon as they came off the steam.

Katz pointed out that Mary also knew a thing or two about crabs, having worked at the venerable Gordon's Crab House in East Baltimore, once a temple of delight, now shuttered.

Katz and I then discussed whether the flavor of beer could actually penetrate the hard shells of crabs or whether this was a cooking process old-time crab cooks preferred because they like the aroma of beer.

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