Burke's, mainstay near harbor for decades, to become Royal Farms

Patrons remember mix of gritty, professional at downtown watering hole

  • Burke's Restaurant, at the corner of Light and Lombard streets, is closed after over 76 years in business.
Burke's Restaurant, at the corner of Light and Lombard… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
January 01, 2011|By Jill Rosen and Jessica Anderson, The Baltimore Sun

Burke's Restaurant, an institution in downtown Baltimore for nearly 80 years that became famous for onion rings, potent martinis and power lunches, has closed.

All was already quiet this weekend at the restaurant, long perched at Lombard and Light streets, one of the city's busiest intersections. A sign on the door said the place had been sold. According to the restaurant owner, the property will soon become a Royal Farms convenience store, selling cigarettes and cans of soda instead of those platters of shucked chilled Chincoteague oysters, crab cakes and sour beef.

"We've been there more than 70 years. It's time to move on," said owner William A. Beery III of Joppatowne. "We're going to miss our loyal customers."

Burke's opened in 1934 and developed a reputation as a tough waterfront watering hole where punches flew as regularly as shots were poured.

But downtown businessmen and Baltimore powers-that-be frequented the place, too, creating a quirky, vibrant mix where patrons were never sure just who they might be dining with.

"It's a Baltimore institution," said Charlie Palmer, an attorney with Blades & Rosenfeld, which is right across the street from the restaurant. "It's a sad thing. Almost everybody is going to miss it."

Baltimore historian Charlie Duff's father ate in the dimly lit, moody place every day for 20 years — and some of Duff's fondest memories are of the days he got to go along.

His father "described it as a place where you can sit at the bar with a bank president on one side and a ditch digger on the other," Duff says. "And he liked that."

There, Duff had his first grilled ham and cheese sandwich and so many sodas served in heavy frosted goblets. At one lunch outing, in 1966, he remembers some of the businessmen getting into a political argument with a candidate for governor who was sitting at the next table — Thomas Finan, then the state's attorney general.

William Abraham Beery Jr., Burke's longtime owner, died of heart failure in 2008. In his obituary that ran in The Baltimore Sun, former patrons shared memories of how Beery's warmth and personality made folks keep coming back.

Christopher C. Hartman, former head of Baltimore's Citizens Planning and Housing Association and the City Fair chairman, said at the time that Burke's was a popular hangout for the staff of the now-shuttered News American newspaper.

"People from the News American were in there all times of the day," he said. "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. 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."

The restaurant, sometimes called Burke's Café, had remained in the family after Beery's death.

Royal Farms paid about $2 million for the property, said Donald K. Schline, a broker with Mackenzie Commercial Real Estate services. The deal closed Dec. 30. A company representative could not immediately be reached for comment.

The first floor will become a convenience store. The second floor will be remodeled into loft-style offices.

Beery said the Comedy Factory, which was located upstairs from Burke's, has already agreed to move to the nearby Power Plant Live complex, as part of Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. planned $11 million makeover of the downtown entertainment district.

Renovations at Burke's are expected to begin soon.

As a tribute to the restaurant, Schline said the new owners would try their best to infuse the Royal Farms with some sort of a Burke's feel. Schline also said that the famous, 3-inch-thick onion rings would be on the convenience store's menu. .

Beery praised the Kemp family, which owns Royal Farms. He said the buyers understood Burke's tradition and wanted to preserve some of the restaurant in the new store, including the restaurant's overhang outside.

Downtown Partnership President Kirby Fowler says the closing of Burke's shouldn't be taken as a worrisome sign about the state of downtown restaurants. He points to the recent opening of Kona Grill and B&O American Brasserie.

"It's a fact of life that the city has evolved and restaurants come and go," he says. "People's tastes have evolved over the years as well. It had its heyday a while ago."

Though Duff had never been to an old London pub, he imagined it must look just like Burke's, with its dark wood, low lights and aged booths.

"I thought it was the most exciting place in the world," he says, adding that even so, he hadn't been there in years and "that may be part of its problem." Maybe other regulars had stopped going, too.

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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