Omar S. Jennings Jr.

Owner Of Popular Catonsville Restaurant Was A Fixture In The Neighborhood's Business Community

August 03, 2009|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

Omar S. Jennings Jr., who owned a popular Catonsville bar and restaurant known for its traditional Baltimore menu, died of lung disease Tuesday at St. Elizabeth's Rehabilitation and Nursing Center. He was 79.

Born in Baltimore and raised on Holmehurst Avenue, he attended McDonogh, Mount St. Joseph's and Catonsville high schools.

Family members said Mr. Jennings' father had operated the old Pimlico Hotel on Park Heights Avenue and bought a Catonsville men's bar, Shooky's Tavern, in 1958 and changed its name to Jennings Cafe. He abandoned the all-male policy, admitted women and expanded its kitchen.

Mr. Jennings tended bar for many years and took over the tavern after his father's death in 1965. He made it a social center of the Frederick Road commercial district and became one of the community's best-known business operators.

"He wanted to serve a good crab cake and good food," said his son, Omar S. Jennings III of Catonsville, who now operates the business.

Mr. Jennings worked with his wife of 50 years, the former Wanda Wenskaitis, who made the cafe's popular coconut cake, rice pudding, potato and cucumber salads until turning over her recipes to her daughters.

A 2004 Sun article said that the "good-natured service is just one reason so many customers return to Jennings day after day. Another reason is the reliable old-Baltimore food, especially the homemade sides and desserts." The story praised such local favorites as crab soup, crab fluff, fried oysters and cheese steak sub.

"He was a nice person," said Marvin Meyer, who owns a nearby business, Cy's Toggery. "Anybody who's eaten at his place says it's the best food around."

Mr. Jennings stepped down from active management more than 20 years ago and turned the business over to his son.

"Omar was a Catonsville fixture," said Russell Witzke, a friend who lives in the community. "He would sit on a bar stool and people would come to him to say hello. He was always willing to chat with everybody."

Mr. Jennings' late brother, Lawrence Jennings, trained thoroughbred horses. The family filled the cafe with photo-finish pictures of races. The bar was also a gathering place for local race fans wanting to watch the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes on TV.

"People have been coming in here for 50 years and would walk right up to greet him," said Susan Dolle, who works at the cafe. "He was gracious, but was always honest in his feelings. He said what he thought was the truth."

Customers said he ran an efficient operation and did not like to mix complicated cocktails. The cafe began selling wine by the bottle long after competitors adopted the practice.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. today at the Sterling, Ashton, Schwab Witzke Funeral home, 1630 Edmondson Ave.

Besides his wife and son, survivors include two daughters, Gretta Watson of Elkridge and Michele Murrmann of Glen Burnie; and seven grandchildren.

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