Part front parlor, part community meeting house, Big Jim’s Deli (1065 S. Charles St.,  752-2434) in the Cross Street Market long ago transcended its role as sandwich counter and delicatessen. Life in Federal Hill is measured out in sandwiches from Big Jim’s. Customers will declare, with minimal prompting, how many years they’ve been bellying up to the counter and for what—Mark, 30 years of corned beef; Doug, 22 years of hot pastrami and Swiss on rye with two bags of chips. The stalls at Nick’s Inner Harbor Seafood may be more storied, more atmospheric, but Big Jim’s is arguably better loved by the people who actually live in Federal Hill—it feels like their domain.
The sandwiches are very good—the Big Jim’s special, a corned beef sandwich with coleslaw, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing, is top of the line— but it’s Anna Epsilantis and her long-running staff that keep the regulars coming back. Epsilantis started helping out at her family’s stall back in 1979—her father is the eponymous Big Jim—and 27 years later, she’s still there, six days a week, from midmorning until past the market’s 7 p.m. closing. She is such a fixture at Big Jim’s that some customers now call the place “Anna’s,” sending new neighbors off on hopeless searches for the “Anna’s” stall.
While the biggest change at Big Jim’s was the addition—10 years ago—of a dining area, for neighbors to swap gossip on a Saturday afternoon, the market around them has changed a lot. The longtime stalls have dwindled to a handful, the whole early-morning marketing ritual has vanished, and a dour but useful variety store has opened across from Big Jim’s. What has remained the same according to Epsilantis is the mix of customers. “The dirt poor and super rich and everything in between,” she says.
In a city that prizes the contrary, the irascible, the outré, Big Jim’s is the rare place that’s achieved institutional status through genuine niceness and consideration. Orders are remembered—not so difficult really, as they seldom change from visit to visit—and money exchanges hands only when customers are finished eating. And Epsilantis is something of the patron saint of the deli. Customers point to her good works for Federal Hill. She spearheaded the streetscape’s decorative banners and hanging flower baskets but refuses to take credit for it, pointing to others’ contributions, offering further proof that, as one customer says, “she sweetens the tea with her finger.”
Price Point (3/3/2010)
EAT: City Paper's annual dining guide
Harbor Area (3/3/2010)
Eating Out (12/12/2007)
Looking Back At 2007 Over The Menus
Dinner Timed (8/15/2007)
Eat Seasonally At Any One Of These Local Favorite Baltimore Dining Rooms
Under the Table (8/15/2007)
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201