Burke's Cafe owner 'loved it'

William A. Beery Jr. 1916-2008

Co-owner served up food, friendship more than 60 years

August 09, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun Reporter

For years, William Abraham Beery Jr. owned the venerable Burke's Cafe in downtown Baltimore, home base of the gently fried 3-inch-wide golden onion ring and of club sandwiches so long they "would stretch from here to the Hillendale Golf course and back," a restaurant critic once observed.

Mr. Beery, the amiable proprietor who was as well-known as the dishes his restaurant served up to hungry Baltimoreans for decades, died of heart failure Tuesday at Stella Maris Hospice in Timonium. He was 91.

In 1947, Mr. Beery became partner with the owner of Burke's Cafe on Light Street, which had been established in 1934 and had earned a reputation of being a tough waterfront watering hole where fisticuffs were as common as the shots of Pikesville Rye and tall drafts of chilled Arrow Beer that traveled across its bar.

"The story goes that Fred Sheaffer went out to Pimlico one day and put some money on a horse. He told the jockey, 'Burke, if you win, I'll name my package store and bar after you,' " said Mr. Beery's son, William A. Beery III of Joppatowne. "And he did win."

Back in the days when Pratt and Light streets was a maritime crossroads, departing passengers often made Burke's their last port-of-call for a bottle of whiskey or gin before climbing up the gangplank of Old Bay Line, United Fruit and Ericsson Line steamers.

"When my father and mother came into the business, they made it into a restaurant. All the recipes came from my mother, who had opened her first restaurant when she was 21," the son said. "And after Mr. Sheaffer, who was known as 'Freddy,' died in 1960, they became sole owners."

It was Mrs. Beery who introduced Burke's signature golden, crispy onion rings, and the restaurant gained additional fame for its no-nonsense Maryland cuisine that also favored the Teutonic.

For decades, diners have jammed its cozy original dining room, with dark-stained booths that look as though they came from Dickensian London, or the medieval-themed dining room that adjoins it, to enjoy platters of shucked chilled Chincoteague oysters, crab cakes, sour beef, marinated herring with sour cream, apple sauce and potato pancakes, bowls of spicy crab soup, sweitzer cheese and hot mustard, and Taylor Pork Roll sandwiches.

Such dishes were accompanied by an ample selection of beer, cocktails and wine.

While Mrs. Beery handled the food, her husband managed the business side.

"He was always on the phone working the books and was still doing it two weeks ago. He loved it," said the younger Mr. Beery, who began working there 41 years ago, and is now owner and general manager.

Open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week, and only closed three days a year - Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's - Burke's has been a favorite destination of office workers, shirkers, celebrities, judges, lawyers, businessmen, bankers and journalists for years.

Sports fans and those attending events at the Civic Center jammed its bar and dining rooms, as did off-duty service workers from nearby hotels and restaurants, who were joined by other denizens of the night.

"My God, was it ever a News American hangout," the son said.

"Bill was truly one of the great guys in Baltimore. He added so much to the community," said Christopher C. Hartman, former head of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association and City Fair chairman.

"People from the News American were in there all times of the day. When I was working on the paper in the 1960s, I didn't have much money for food and would go in there for a Coke," Mr. Hartman said.

"Bill knew I liked pork roll and cheese sandwiches, and before I knew it, he'd send one over and wouldn't charge me for it."

Mr. Hartman, better off in later years, said he tried to pay for his meals only to be rebuffed.

"When Bill wouldn't take my money, I went to his wife, and she said, 'Bill has a rule, you don't pay.' Then I went to his daughter, and she said the same thing," he said.

C. Peter "Buzz" BeLer, co-owner of the Prime Rib, liked dining at Burke's on Sunday evenings with his wife.

"We used to go there for the fried chicken, and it was awfully good. It was a very comfortable and relaxing place," said Mr. BeLer.

"Bill was always a pleasure to be around, and you can't be in business as long as he was without doing something right," he said.

Mr. Beery was born in Baltimore and raised in Walbrook Junction. He was a graduate of Forest Park High School and earned a degree in accounting from the Johns Hopkins University.

During the late 1930s and 1940s, he worked as an accountant for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. before taking a job at the old Summit Night Club on Old Pimlico Road.

The longtime Ellicott City resident moved to the Mercy Ridge retirement community five years ago.

Mr. Beery enjoyed spending winters in Naples, Fla., and golfing.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. today in the chapel at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, 200 E. Padonia Road in Timonium.

Also surviving are his wife of 61 years, the former Crickett Sells; a daughter, Sandra E. Herrmann of Sparks; a stepson, Richard Melvin Hayward of Baltimore; five grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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