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Past Prime Preservation Urbanite Baltimore Magazine .pdf

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Past Prime | Preservation | Urbanite Baltimore Magazine

News & Features » Preservation



April 01, 2010



Past Prime 

Once swank, the long‑closed Chesapeake Restaurant stirs, two decades after serving its last highball.
by Brennen Jensen
click to enlarge

For most Baltimoreans younger than 60, "Chesapeake Restaurant" are only words
on battered signage near the Charles Theatre, where an arrow futilely points to a dark quintet of chocolate‑brown
rowhouses, empty and desolate since the 1980s. But if you were a citizen of means during the Mad Men years, that
name might evoke a scene that looked something like this:
It's a Saturday night in the mid‑1960s, and you and the Mrs. are getting ready for an evening out. You slip into your
best attire—trim, two‑button suit for you, dress gloves and pearls for her—and head to 1707 North Charles Street,
where you are greeted by a tuxedoed gentleman who hands you a pack of matches bearing your name in gilt letters.

Your reservation is acknowledged. (And you did make reservations, because you won't find an empty table amid this
thicket of gray flannel, satin, and chiffon.) The air is a heady mix of tobacco smoke, big‑night‑out perfume, and the
enticing aroma of charcoaled steak. In the bustling foyer: a motorized lazy Susan, groaning with deep‑sea victuals on
ice—lobsters, crabs, plump clams, briny oysters.
ph o to by D en n i s D r e n n er

The jaunty strains of "The Girl from Ipanema"—with occasional rhythmic accompaniment from a martini‑loaded cocktail shaker—drifts in from the piano
lounge to the right. That's dapper Neil Wolfe at the ivories, soon to record with Barbra Streisand. On your left, the boisterous Elbow Room Bar—home to
many a backslapping "client lunch"—is in full swing. There's National Premium on draft and an electrified likeness of Pimlico Race Course behind the bar,
where the refashioned guts of a pinball machine make horses "race" around the oval at Old Hilltop. A few Saturdays back, half a dozen Green Bay Packers
whooped it up so hard that a besotted halfback had to be carried out the door at closing. (How they managed to clobber the Colts with those morning‑
after heads remains a mystery.)
Where to tonight? The Crisfield Room? The Chestnut Room? Perhaps upstairs to the fireplace‑flickering Lamplighter Room, or the Babe Ruth Room, that
temple to the Sultan of Swat where everything from his wristwatch and his bats are enshrined. Ultimately, you are led to the dark‑paneled Chesapeake
Room, where burgundy carpets match the curved leather booths. A Manhattan arrives at your elbow. A Caesar salad tonight? They're prepared tableside.
The Chesapeake's famous slogan—Cut your steak with a fork or tear up your check and walk out—promises that the beef is always a good bet. Then
again, the New York Times just rhapsodized about the crab imperial. Save room for flaming strawberries Romanoff or a fresh coconut snowball.
And, gently discernable above the murmur of conversations and tinkling water glasses, Wolfe segues into "The Shadow of Your Smile."
Fast forward to 2010. There's the old piano, now wearing a blanket of dust and keeping silent watch over a disheveled lounge in a vacant building where
the office calendars read 1986.
But perhaps not for much longer. The vacant building's longtime owner, Baltimore lawyer Robert Sapero, recently sold the Chesapeake to the city, ending a
protracted legal tussle that involved a failed attempt to wrest the building away using eminent domain. A development team that includes restaurateur
Qayum Karzai, of Helmand and Tapas Teatro fame, has been tapped to relaunch the property; an eatery, gourmet foods market, and office space—perhaps
bearing the Chesapeake name—may open here by 2011.
But before the 21st‑century story of this address is written, attention must be paid to three generations of Baltimore's Friedman family, who birthed a
gastronomic giant here—beginning with Morris Friedman, who opened a grocery on the block in 1919. "When whiskey came back—the end of Prohibition
—my father moved next door, and with my older brother we opened the Chesapeake Restaurant. Twenty‑nine seats: That's five booths and nine counter
stools," says nonagenarian Norman Friedman over the phone from his retirement home in Florida. (Along with his younger brother Philip, 85, they helped
the author fill in the details of this story's opening; Mad Men scribes should put the pair on retainer.)

click to enlarge
click to enlarge

click to enlarge

By 1961, the Chesapeake subsumed five
rowhouses, boasting three hundred seats
on two floors and a national rep for steaks
and seafood. Its success was a mix of
innovation—they were Baltimore pioneers of
prime beef and charcoal grilling—and old‑
school simplicity. The kitchen staff, most of
whom worked there for decades and almost
all of whom were African American, might
have lacked culinary degrees, but they made
up for it with an intimate knowledge of cuisine de Maryland.

ph o to by D en n i s D r e n n er
Last call: Donald Friedman, grandson of
original Chesapeake owner Morris
Friedman, surveys the long‑dormant
lounge and dining room of the old
family restaurant. A new development
team has been tapped to renovate and
reopen the once‑popular Charles Street

The downturn came quickly. A five‑alarm fire swept through the place in 1974, burning up the Babe's belongings and
cueing some of the elder Friedmans that it was time to retire. Even as the family rebuilt, that stretch of Charles Street
spiraled downward, with seedy bars and peep shows filling the storefronts. Harborplace's arrival in 1980 further
shifted urban energy downtown, and by mid‑decade the Friedmans were fighting for the public's protein dollar in an
era of chain steak joints and "casual dining." They stuck a fork in the business in 1983.
New restaurateurs briefly opened the Chesapeake later in the '80s before the place was more or less mothballed. New
owner Sapero perennially blamed the blighted environs for his inability to market the space to new operators.




Past Prime | Preservation | Urbanite Baltimore Magazine
destination, which has been shuttered
since the mid‑1980s. "I just hope
whoever comes in here has success," he

More than twenty years later, Donald Friedman—Philip's son and a Hampden‑based business consultant who grew up
working at the Chesapeake—tromps through the decayed restaurant on the eve of its redevelopment. He recounts
how, as a boy, he literally bumped into the Temptations coming out of the bathroom. "Nothing but nice memories,"
he says. "I just hope whoever comes in here has success."

Down in sunny Florida, his father and uncle watch—happily—from the sidelines.
"I wouldn't go back in the restaurant business if you paid me a thousand dollars a minute," says Norman Friedman.
His brother Philip, meanwhile, wonders whether the Karzai team should consider retaining the Chesapeake name if they succeed in reopening the
restaurant. "If I were opening that place today, I don't think I'd use the name. People who remember the place would expect it to be the Chesapeake. And it
simply wouldn't be. You'll never recapture the past."

—Brennen Jensen

« Back in the Saddle? |


The Last Castle »







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