Baltimore's great treasures pass away -- so savor them

October 08, 2005|By JACQUES KELLY

Years ago I developed immunity to complaints that Baltimore was changing, hence, going to the dogs, fast becoming a Detroit. As a child, I sat around the kitchen table and audited stories about how the tablecloths once sold at O'Neill's were inherently superior and there was never an ice cream parlor to equal Cooper's or Doebereiner's.

There was a lesson to be learned in the cranky wisdom of my elders: If something is good today, go and enjoy it now. The best stuff will not last. And, like a good memory savings account, it's nice to have something to tap into years later.

A few years ago, when the owners of Haussner's Restaurant in Highlandtown announced they would be closing the doors for good, the place was packed and jammed for days with patrons aiming a final fork at the strawberry pie.

Guilty as charged, I joined the frenzy too, but should I? Hadn't I already enjoyed enough good times there? It had a long ride, and let's face it, culinary affection for wiener schnitzel was dim. And the pictures, often derided in Baltimore as second-rate, were anything but, and brought millions after a proper display in a swank New York auction house.

Baltimore today is a place where many of the town's old favorites change constantly, then fall off the edge entirely.

I think I could go year by year in my working days and come up with an honor roll of dearly departed.

I often marvel that when something disappears, it attains a status, appreciation, perhaps downright celebrityhood, it never possessed in active life. I think of some rather prosaic things, like a Harley's submarine sandwich. My friends talk in hushed tones about the secret sauce, a type of tangy dressing, that accompanied the cold cuts and what I always thought was a rather soggy roll.

Then again, I slip into rhapsodic trouble too. Come 11 p.m. on certain evenings, I yearn to have Harley Brinsfield back on WBAL radio spinning Billie Holiday and Art Tatum records.

Another in this category would be National Bohemian beer. Now that it's no longer sold on every corner, it's achieved a heavy icon status.

One night this week I relapsed into this again, when a discussion of the old Nickel City Grille at Harborplace came up, one of the many fallen enterprises (come to think of it, the adjective old now must precede the Rouse Co. - which built Harborplace - in the some way the O-word goes before Hutzler's and B&O Railroad). Nickel City, by the way, sat where the current Cheesecake Factory's line begins.

I guess what I'm saying is: Make the best of these neighborhood dives and joints where the cooks know how to make a club sandwich or fry a steak.

My own cynical personal rule is that if a pastime, store, restaurant, activity is great fun, and you love it, it's probably endangered in some way.

This rule's first corollary is that some of the best stuff is never well promoted or advertised and, in the case of food, is the last thing listed on the menu - like the cooks had grown weary of making their masterpiece.

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