Icy mugs and steamburgers

Rosedale institution closes for winter with a treat -- free root beer

September 30, 2006|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,SUN REPORTER

Leonard Martin passed an icy mug through the window of Stewart's Root Beer to a customer waiting in a car, then called in the food order: six hot dogs.

Since March, Martin and his wife, Dorie, have cooked chili dogs, Old Bay wings and cheese fries seven days a week at their restaurant, a half-century-old institution on Pulaski Highway in Rosedale. Now, they are about to scrub down the kitchen, hang plastic over the windows and head down to Texas for a few months.

But before they close for the season, they will offer one final treat. They will give away free root beer to anyone who stops by tomorrow.

It's a sign of appreciation for their customers, many of whom have been coming to the restaurant for decades.

"I've got to get my fix before he closes for the winter," said Ken Inks, 61, a cookie distributor from Dundalk, as he dug into a chili dog. He also ordered a steamburger, a sandwich resembling a sloppy joe without the sauce.

When Inks was a teenager, Stewart's was a drive-in where servers hooked trays of food to car windows. "When I got my first car, it was the first place I took it on a Saturday night," he said.

Although most customers now come inside to eat, neither the menu - which emphasizes meat, squirtable cheese and sugary drinks - nor the decor has changed much over the years. The wood-panel walls are trimmed in tangerine. Outside, the letters that spell Stewart's Root Beer are faded to peach and curled at the edges.

The front windows feature paintings of a red 1957 Chevy and a purple 1939 Plymouth. Classic car lovers gather at the restaurant a few times a year.

Martin bought the restaurant in 1969, 20 years after it opened on Pulaski Highway. In 1975, he moved it a few hundred yards from its original location and reopened as a sit-down restaurant.

Icy mugs, sweet soda

Leonard fills icy mugs with Stewart's toothachingly sweet sodas in flavors such as Cherries n' Cream and Key Lime. He hands mugs of soda to customers to enjoy while they wait for their food at the drive-through window.

Dorie, a petite woman with a ponytail perched high on her head, uses a 2-foot-long whisk to stir pots of steamburger meat.

They greet most of their customers by name. "I know when they pull up what to drop in the kitchen," Dorie said. "A lot of them never change. They get the same thing every time."

Jim Wolfkill, 78, and his wife, Mildred, 77, have been coming to Stewart's for root beer and hot dogs ever since their children played baseball. "Forty years ago, the Little Leaguers all used to come here after all the games," said Mildred Wolfkill, munching on a chicken sandwich.

Leonard Martin said he likes to keep the restaurant old-fashioned. He said he doesn't plan to sell it anytime soon. "You sell it, and they would change every damn thing," he said. "They'd serve food on a kaiser roll."

The first root beer stand in the Stewart's chain was started in 1924 by an Ohio schoolteacher named Frank Stewart, according to the company's Web site.

Martin's customers say that they're glad that the restaurant, located across the busy highway from the El-Rich Motel and a few doors down from Psychic Readings by Sister Bess, doesn't change.

Steve Blake, 43, remembers coming to Stewart's as a special treat when he was a kid. Now, he eats there regularly with co-workers from the Friendship Dental Laboratory.

Asked what brings her back to Stewart's, dental technician Gloria Woods, 44, pointed emphatically at her meal with her plastic fork. "The cheese fries," she said.

"I guess from October to March everyone is going to be losing weight," said dental technician Tim Roberts, 48, as he reflected on his last Stewart's meal of the season.

"That's a long time to wait for cheese fries," Woods said.

The Martins said that they are tired after a busy season and ready to take a break. They maintain the original owner's custom of closing for the cooler months.

Leonard Martin, 64, is a tall man with brushed-back gray hair. He put down his order pad, reached under the counter and pulled out photos of the trailer he keeps near Corpus Christi, Texas, to show a customer the porch he built last year.

Leonard said that he spends most winter days crabbing in the Gulf of Mexico. He and Dorie don't cook much in Texas, choosing to take their meals at the VFW post where Dorie calls bingo a couple of nights a week.

"When we're gone, we miss them chili dogs," said Dorie, 45. "I can make them - I know the recipes by heart - but I don't. It's too much effort."

Some customers stock up for the winter by buying brown barrel-shaped jugs of root beer and pounds of steamburger, chili or hamburger meat.

Richard Kmoch bought seven pounds of steamburger, which the Martins season with a secret blend of six spices. "This year I'm planning ahead," Kmoch said. "That's why I have my beef at home, and when I get a taste for it, I'll cook it up."

Falling in love

Root beer reminds Kmoch, 57, and his girlfriend, Lillian Condiff, 49, of falling in love. The couple drank root beer floats at Stewart's Root Beer in Rosedale on one of their first dates in 1974.

After dating for five years, the couple split up in 1979. When Condiff found Kmoch again through the Internet in 2004, she knew that they should meet at the root beer restaurant.

"We had been here so many times together, it just felt right," Condiff said.

Since reuniting, the couple has eaten at Stewart's at least once a week. They hope to show up Feb. 28, when the Martins plan to reopen - and once again give away free root beer. Until then, customers say they will long for a Stewart's meal.

"It's one of those things, like waiting for a home-grown tomato," Inks said. "You just wait - you know what I mean? You just wait."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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