Putting their reservations on hold

Change is on the menu for regulars of Marconi's as the staple of Baltimore fare closes its doors for the rest of the summer.

June 25, 2005|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Marconi's Restaurant, the 85-year-old downtown institution whose courtly, tuxedo-attired waiters offered such dishes as "Sweetbreads Sarah Bernhardt" and "Lobster Cardinale," has been shut down "for the summer" by its owner, Peter G. Angelos.

Longtime patrons, whose affection for the chandeliered dining room stretches the decades, fear for its future, saying they will miss the genteel atmosphere and the signature, homemade chocolate fudge sauce ladled from soup bowls.

"It simply couldn't break even where it is," said Angelos, the prominent local attorney who also owns the Orioles. "Marconi's is not going to be going away permanently. There will be future announcements in a month or two."

When Angelos bought the West Saratoga Street dining establishment in 2000, he suggested that he might someday move it elsewhere downtown. Yesterday, he declined to say whether Marconi's would relocate to Charles Street, where he owns other properties.

The restaurant, which seldom altered its menu or the strength of its drinks, closed earlier this week after its customary down time on Sunday and Monday nights. It ceased its luncheon service several months ago.

"I don't know what to do. I don't have a restaurant to go to," said David Roszel, a Bolton Hill resident who recalled going there for the first time "about 1934 or 1935," accompanied by an aunt and the daughter of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Roszel said he always ordered sweetbreads in the winter and soft-shell crabs, crab cakes or lobster thermidor in the summer.

Over the years, stories built up about the place. Legendary newspaperman H.L. Mencken often ate there, favoring the lamb chops.

He was reported to have sat at a corner table, which was later occasionally occupied by the city's Roman Catholic archbishops. Marconi regulars liked what food critics called its "belle epoque dishes ... and good dry martinis."

Other celebrities and literary lights included publisher Alfred A. Knopf, actor Walter Huston, opera diva Lily Pons, writers James M. Cain, Alexander Woollcott, Sinclair Lewis and Joseph Hergesheimer, composer Irving Berlin and bandleader Fred Waring.

Local legend has it that Rudolph Valentino was a waiter there before going to Hollywood.

R.W. Apple, writing in the New York Times in 1998, described a bittersweet sauce over vanilla ice cream as "the best chocolate sundae on the planet."

"The waiters knew your habits, anticipated what you would want," said attorney Robert A. Shelton, who customarily ate there Wednesday evenings. "The world changed, but Marconi's did not. It was like a club, in a sense."

Regulars recalled yesterday how its menu offered five different styles of potato - julienne, lyonnaise, au gratin, hash brown and french fried.

Housed in a 19th-century rowhouse south of the Basilica of the Assumption and other Mount Vernon landmarks, the restaurant had seen a decline in patronage after the closing of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.

Earlier this year, another venerable downtown institution, the Woman's Industrial Exchange's tea room, also closed. Its managers also have promised to reopen it.

Word spread quickly among Marconi's dwindling customers, who often dined there at their regular tables several times a month.

"I'll miss the soft crabs, which were always the small spider variety and were beautifully prepared," said Dr. James R. Duke, who began dining there in 1946. "I didn't miss it personally, but people will miss the shad roe. The menu always remained the same. Marconi's will be greatly missed and is irreplaceable."

Duke then recalled all the attentive waiters who served him in more than five decades.

"The waiters got to know you," he said. "One of them sent me Christmas cards long after he had retired."

Angelos pledged yesterday that he would reopen Marconi's but did not promise to keep it on Saratoga Street.

"We kept it open for a long time," Angelos said yesterday. "Unfortunately, we were not doing much business. It's not going to be going away."

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