Old menus recall the days of cheap beer, pig knuckles

February 16, 2005|By ROB KASPER

FOR ABOUT THE last 40 years, whenever George McGinn visited a Baltimore-area restaurant, he would walk out with a menu. Sometimes he got permission, but other times he or a companion slipped the menu under a jacket and hustled out the door.

One reason behind his menu-nabbing habit was professional curiosity. McGinn was in the restaurant business and he wanted to see what his competitors were doing. He ran McGinn's restaurant at 328 N. Charles St. from 1974 to 1995. It is now Mick O'Shea's.

McGinn, a native of Hatfield, Pa., a "two stoplight town," also worked in a variety of Baltimore restaurants, including the Prime Rib, the Eager House, the Park Plaza and the Holiday Inn on Lombard Street.

McGinn liked looking at the menu artwork, the lettering, the food choices. During 40 years of menu swiping, he collected more than 200 samples. Now retired and planning to move to Florida at the end of the month, McGinn, encouraged by his wife, Jane, is in the de-accession mode. He is getting rid of the menus, passing them on to David J. Derewicz, the Prime Rib's general manager.

On a blustery winter day, McGinn sat with Derewicz and me in the Prime Rib, a short walk for McGinn through the lobby of the North Calvert Street building where he resides. We looked over his collection, some of it purloined, some donated.

Now, 76 years old and having battled cancer of the larynx, McGinn spoke with the aid of an electronic device. He still had a bit of mischief in his voice as he paged through the menus and told tales of the Baltimore restaurant scene.

The menu from the Holiday Inn, for instance, reminded him that the restaurant, perched atop the hotel, had slowly revolved. The rotating restaurant was both an attraction and a nuisance, he said. The novelty was that the moving restaurant offered a view of the skyline, completing its cycle in one hour. The problem was that being in motion sometimes upset the stomach of the diners.

"More people got sick because of that constant motion," said McGinn who worked at the restaurant from 1964 to 1966. Moreover, he said, helping ailing customers negotiate the moving floor as they headed for the exit was quite a feat.

Some of the menus came from establishments once regarded as among the city's finest. A 1954 Preakness week menu from the old Miller Brothers restaurant on Fayette Street was adorned with a classy visage of Man O'War and featured a dish of the day, crab meat and Smithfield ham saute, fresh asparagus and french fried potatoes, for $1.95.

A bottle of Gunther's beer was 25 cents, National Premium was 30 cents. "Miller Brothers printed the menus in the basement of the restaurant," McGinn said.

Haussner's, the beloved Eastern Avenue restaurant noted for its extensive, eclectic art collection, also had an extensive, eclectic menu. The Feb. 6, 1975, menu that McGinn acquired, for example, promised "fresh pig knuckle sauerkraut, one veg $3.95." It was one of the more than 160 items on the menu.

If the prices - $6.50 for a steak Polynesian dinner - on the menu of the old Dickman's Restaurant wasn't a big enough clue that this was a document from a distant era, then the description of its location, "where Mount Royal Avenue meets Maryland Avenue" certainly was. The restaurant used to back up to the Lyric Opera House, McGinn told me, but now only the enlarged opera house occupies that spot.

McGinn also nabbed menus from lesser-known establishments that offered simple fare. The cover of the menu for the High Bar, in a downtown alley off Liberty Street, shows a lobster holding a bottle of Schlitz beer in its claw. The place once had the best selection of whiskey in the city, McGinn said.

When McGinn saw the menu from Connolly's Seafood House on Pier 5, an unpretentious harbor eatery that was knocked down in the early 1990s, he recalled that it was a joint where the fried hard-crab sandwich was $1.25, and where a customer was ordered to "lift your feet" whenever a restaurant worker felt like hosing down the floor.

During many of the years McGinn was acquiring menus, dining in ethnic restaurants was considered an adventure. A late 1960s menu from Jimmy Wu's New China Inn in the 2400 block of North Charles Street, for instance, offers advice to newcomers: "Confucius say: Good eating is an adventure; it is lots of fun particularly when you eat Chinese food the way Chinese have enjoyed eating for thousands of years. Family Style Dinners!"

The menu in his collection from Maria's on Albemarle Street in Little Italy was not dated, but its claim that the restaurant was "scientifically air conditioned" was a clue that it was vintage. "Years ago on high school prom night, everybody ate 75-cent spaghetti at Maria's," said McGinn.

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