'Big Food' Big Heart

Folks learn in short order that Pete's Grille treats regulars like royalty. Just ask an Olympian.

Athens Olympics

Sizing up the breakfast spot of a champion

August 17, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Pete's Grille in Waverly is one of those places you think only exists in Barry Levinson movies. At its faded wood counter, doctors squeeze in next to cops. Young teachers sit next to congregants from the local Baptist church. Black and white, young and old, downtown lawyers and Johns Hopkins athletes.

An Olympic champion fits in nicely.

For the restaurant's owners Lou and Char Sharkey, Michael Phelps is not an Olympic gold medalist. He is not a worldwide swimming sensation, a millionaire or a Speedo pitchman. He's just a regular who happens to eat a lot. But then again, everyone eats a lot at Pete's.

"He's just another kid," says Char Sharkey, who is Phelps' regular waitress. "He's been coming here since he was 15."

It began four summers ago, when members of the Hopkins swim team were training at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. They dragged Phelps one morning to their favorite breakfast spot. His 3,000-calorie breakfast routine is now legendary - two egg and cheese sandwiches, grits, three slices of French toast, a stack of chocolate chip pancakes and a Western omelet with cheese - but then it was something that the Sharkeys had never seen before.

"The first time he ate so much I said, `Do you have a tapeworm or some problem you want to talk about?'" Char says. But she and her husband quickly adjusted. "We don't serve minuscule meals," she says. "We serve big food. We're all about the fat."

Phelps has brought national attention - plus media stars like Tom Brokaw and Matt Lauer - to Pete's. Not that the place needed it. The restaurant's 26 counter seats (there are no tables) are nearly always full, with the line snaking out onto Greenmount Avenue on weekends. When members of the Ravens showed up once, they stood in line with everyone else.

"Vinny Testaverde waited 10 minutes to get a chair," says Lou Sharkey, referring to the former Ravens quarterback and offering no apologies. "It's our regulars that count."

Phelps is one of 200 or so regulars who are greeted by name and whose orders are memorized by the staff. What keeps bringing them back is not necessarily the generous portions or the low prices (three pancakes and bacon for $5, an egg sandwich for $2), or the fact that you can still order grits without getting a funny look, but the friendly, wise-cracking nature of the owners.

"It's not the press, and it's not the food," says Char, 34, explaining the restaurant's appeal. "It's the warmth you feel when you're in here."

It's still a homey little place, even after the 1940s-era wallpaper was peeled off last summer and the walls were painted a deep shade of red. There are still photos of Babe Ruth and Jim Palmer, old Coca-Cola advertisements and framed front pages from Orioles World Series wins.

Also last summer, flower boxes were added to the front windows, along with black-and-white awnings, and the counter seats were replaced. A cynic might think the Sharkeys were fancying up the place to show off to the national media.

Lou, 35, issues a categoric denial: "Nothing to do with it." But he hung a banner outside: "Good luck Mike. Go for the gold!" And he does seem to take some pleasure in fielding Phelps' phone calls. He lets it slip that a representative from Paris Hilton's camp called looking for Phelps, but he won't spill more. His wife warns him: "A friend wouldn't say anything at all."

Protective of customer

The Sharkeys, who live in Monkton, are protective of Phelps. Last summer, after Phelps broke five world records in Barcelona and returned to Baltimore, four TV news trucks were waiting for him at Pete's the next morning. Lou called Phelps and told him to park in the garage behind the restaurant, and they served him his breakfast in the kitchen.

"He knows that when he comes in we'll lock the door if we have to, so he can get some peace," Lou says. When Phelps is at Pete's, he always sits at the end of the counter across from Lou on the grill, so they can easily swap insults.

Since Phelps reached Athens, he's been in touch with the Sharkeys through phone calls and instant messaging. After Phelps won a gold in his first race, he was "on Cloud Nine," Lou said. But he wasn't disappointed when Phelps won bronze medals yesterday and Sunday, making it impossible for him to match Mark Spitz's record seven golds.

"They've put so much pressure on him from the start," Lou said, referring to the media hype. "Nobody can live up to that. He's won three medals in three events. My God, that's impressive enough as it is."

Upon returning to Baltimore and Pete's, Phelps will certainly be welcomed - but not hassled - by the Pete's regulars. Many of them interviewed over the weekend didn't even know Phelps was routinely in their midst. But they're not surprised he found his place at Pete's.

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