Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.
Print Email

Eat Feature


A Toast to the New World Power

Michelle Gienow
Werner's Restaurant

Eat Special Issue 2002

Time to Eat City Paper's Dining Guide 2002 | By Michelle Gienow

1900-1919 A Toast to the New World Power | By Michelle Gienow

1920s Speakeasies, Cocktails, and All That Jazz

1930s Hard Times, Good Eats | By Michelle Gienow

1940s War and Peas | By Michelle Gienow

1950s Rock 'n' Roll 'n' TV Dinners | By Michelle Gienow

1960s Power to the Peoples | By Michelle Gienow

1970s Sideburns and Szechwan | By Michelle Gienow

1980s Blackened Ron and Nancy | By Michelle Gienow

1990s Boom and Buzz | By Michelle Gienow

2000s Onward and Inward | By Michelle Gienow

Eat 2002

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 2/27/2002

"Progress" was the watchword at the dawn of the 20th century. Miraculous inventions--the airplane, moving pictures, telephone service--and economic prosperity transformed the lives of everyday citizens. Seeking a better life, people poured into the cities, where immigrants from other countries and native-born Americans leaving the farm found employment in the rapidly growing industrial sector. Model Ts rolled off Henry Ford's revolutionary assembly line; the Baltimore Chewing Gum Co.'s factory produced Goetze's Caramel Creams. The nation rushed toward the future with all its might.

The food of the era, by and large, was traditional and plain; French was considered to be the only truly fine cuisine. In 1903, French culinary master Auguste Escoffier published his definitive cookbook, Le Guide Culinaire, which would influence American dining for decades to come. Most restaurants were grand dining rooms patronized almost exclusively by wealthy businessmen. Oysters, terrapin, and other Chesapeake Bay bounty, cooked in the finest cream-laden Escoffier style, fed diners along the eastern seaboard. Baltimore's elite restaurants of the day included Miller Brothers, which opened in 1913 and fed whale steaks and green turtle soup to the city's power elite until its close in 1963.

The menu at the Polo Grill (4 W. University Parkway, [410] 235-8200) shows how things have changed from those days--its rockfish is served with crab and artichoke salad, saffron risotto, and champagne watercress sauce--but the restaurant is still the modern embodiment of the dining room for the elite. Though prices are extravagant, the contemporary American food lives up to them. As you eavesdrop on the power players at the next table, focus on stalwarts such as the 20-ounce prime rib (melt-in-your-mouth tender, with a tantalizing Jack Daniel's butter sauce) and the famous Polo Grill fried lobster tail.

You can likewise find beefy guys in ties discussing merger plans over classic, exquisitely prepared American cuisine at the Oregon Grille (1201 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley, [410] 771-0505), but don't let that stop you. The food here is well priced considering the superb quality. Beyond steak au poivre and rack of lamb, there are less traditional dishes such as a delightful warm lobster salad. And the grilled duck served with blueberry ketchup over grit cake is worth the drive.

The atmosphere is less businesslike and more democratic at the very Old Baltimore Maison Marconi (106 W. Saratoga St., [410] 727-9522), and the prices are more moderate too. The shabbily opulent atmosphere appears unchanged since the place opened in 1920--as does the menu of "Continental" classics. Where else in town can one indulge in sweetbreads at all, much less four different preparations thereof? H.L. Mencken loved this place, and so should you. (And do it sooner rather than later--Marconi's is slated to be moved as part of the west-side "renaissance").

At the other end of the nation's industrial revolution were the workers, who needed something other than oysters Rockefeller to eat. Less expensive and more accessible types of eateries sprung up to feed the masses: the cafeteria, the hot dog stand (Nathan's Famous on Coney Island opened in 1916), and the revolutionary Automat (1902, Philadelphia).

Breakfast and lunch have been served to downtown office workers since 1938 at the site of Werner's Restaurant (231 E. Redwood St., [410] 752-3335)--in what has to be Baltimore's best art-deco interior. (Werner's itself has been there since 1950.) Grab a booth and dig into the equally vintage chow--scrapple and creamed chipped beef for breakfast, homemade soups and braunschweiger for lunch--and don't mind the waitresses; they're not surly so much as they are efficient. And just how big is that tip going to be on your ridiculously cheap lunch tab anyway?

Johns Hopkins students and maintenance workers alike crowd the stools at Pete's Grille in Waverly (3130 Greenmount Ave., [410] 467-7698), one of the city's last true lunch counters. The prices are sensationally cheap; the food--traditional breakfast and hot lunch fare--is simply sensational.

Down South Baltimore way, Rallo's Restaurant (838 E. Fort Ave., [410] 727-7067) has been dishing up hearty, ravishingly inexpensive workman's fare for 60-plus years. Come lunchtime, every seat at the counter is taken up with crews from the sugar house and other Locust Point industrial survivors. Some truly fine homemade soup is served up right here--don't miss the beef-barley or the lima-bean varieties.

Downtown's Woman's Industrial Exchange (333 N. Charles St., [410] 685-4388) is a time-honored ladies' lunch spot, featuring a never-varying menu as comforting as it is proper. Not to be missed is the sublime chicken salad--although the accompanying tomato aspic, quivering picturesquely on the plate, might not be to everyone's taste. We have no reservations at all about the deviled eggs, homemade rolls, and yellow layer cake with chocolate icing, and we simply adore getting lunch for less than five bucks.

Iced tea, hamburgers, and the ice-cream cone: These foods we now take for granted were unknown to most Americans before the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Legend has it that an English tea vendor, frustrated by the sweltering Missouri weather that dissuaded fairgoers from trying his hot wares, poured the tea over ice. The better-known story of the ice-cream cone's invention holds that Ernest Hamwi, a Syrian pastry chef, came to the rescue when a neighboring ice-cream stand ran out of bowls: He rolled his waferlike pastries into cornucopia shapes and voila! The ice-cream cone became a star.

Pretty much every restaurant in the city has iced tea, but great ice-cream parlors are harder to come by. Moxley's (25 W. Allegheny Ave., Towson, [410] 825-2544) makes every one of its more than 100 fabulous flavors on the premises (about 25 are available at any given time). Traditional varieties--such as an incredibly rich butter pecan and a rum raisin that's so rummy we swear it gives us a buzz--are endlessly excellent. House special flavors include both the sublime (chocolate-covered pretzel) and the silly (Old Bay).

Need Ice Cream (506 W. Cold Spring Lane, [410] 261-5555) sells locally made Lee's ice cream in a colorful old-timey ice cream parlor in Roland Park. The exuberant proprietress, Ann Howell, commissions signature ice creams, such as Berger Cookie, to offer her lucky customers.

And Mount Vernon's bright little Sylvan Beach Café (7 W. Preston St., [410] 685-5752) serves up great homemade ice cream (try the addictive coconut almond chip) while providing housing, education, and employment for high-school dropouts. Coffee, pastries, and sandwiches are also available.

Ethnic eats such as Chinese and Italian food certainly existed during the first two decades of the last century, but they were strictly "ethnic"--as in, confined to the appropriate immigrant enclaves. "Foreign" food was regarded with suspicion, but the tide began to turn when the United States' first known pizzeria, Lombardi's, opened in 1905 on Spring Street in New York's Little Italy (it's still there). Culinary converts were unable to resist the Power of the Pie. History is thus far silent on the location of Baltimore's first pizza parlor; logic dictates that it would have been located in our own Little Italy, but no specific pizza pioneer has been identified.

Not that it matters, since we all know how the story ends. There is quite the range of pies in Baltimore, from classic New York slices to jazzy brick-oven elaborations. One of the city's top carry-out pizzas can be found at Viccino's (1315 N. Charles St., [410] 576-0266), where a large cheese pie will set you back only $10.50. This is the Platonic takeout pie--thin crust and zingy tomato sauce, the cheese dripping that orange pizza oil. Nonpurists may want to add one of the 10 free (!) toppings.

If you want classic pizza but want to eat on the premises, we suggest Parkville's Mamma Lucia (1991 E. Joppa Road, [410] 665-5900), where the pies are hand-tossed by guys speaking not just Italian but Neapolitan. A very good sign, as Naples is the birthplace of pizza. Indeed, the pizza here is nigh perfect: a thin, crisp-bottomed, but ultimately tender crust, rich marinara, and plenty of cheese.

For fancy-pants pizza, there's Mount Vernon's Al Pacino Café (900 Cathedral St., [410] 962-8859) or Egyptian Pizza (542 E Belvedere Ave., [410] 323-7060) in Govans, very similar establishments. Both places offer 30-plus gourmet brick-oven pies, such as Egyptian's "Sunset Boulevard" with curried lamb, wild mushrooms, and mango salsa. They also do a good version of authentic "Margherita" pizzas, the Italian original, with basil and fresh mozzarella.

At the opposite end of the gourmet spectrum is the eternally popular Matthew's Pizzaria (3131 Eastern Ave., [410] 276-8755), famous for the thickest crust in Baltimore. The homey wood-paneled dining room with its 10 tables could not be more Highlandtown, and Matthew's pizza recipe is so Old World it might have arrived on the Ark and the Dove with Lord Calvert.

Related stories

Eat Feature archives

More Stories

Price Point (3/3/2010)
EAT: City Paper's annual dining guide

Central (3/3/2010)

Harbor Area (3/3/2010)

More from Michelle Gienow

Nice Tea (7/28/2010)
A foolproof guide to a summer staple

Welcome Home, Big Beef (4/28/2010)
Taking the grass-fed beef by the horns and cooking it

Let It Snow (2/24/2010)
Making sweet treats out of the fluffy white stuff

Comments powered by Disqus
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter