Burke's — RIP
Convenience trumps comfort as the legendary downtown restaurant closes up and a Royal Farms store moves in.
“I remember going there with my father … a darkened place where Dad could feel the comfort of the familiar ... " — William “Billy D” Driscoll, man of downtown
If a convenience store is a text message, then Burke’s Café—serving locals and tourists at the corner of Light and Lombard streets since 1934—was a handwritten letter. One with postscripts by generations of Baltimore newspaper reporters and an au jus stain smearing the page.
"Last time I was in Burke's, I was picking up some baseball tickets from a sportswriter on the old News American, had to be around ’57 or ’58,” said Pete Genovese, a Highlandtown boy living in St. Louis. “Fellow named Frank Ptaszynski, they called him 'Pinky,' used to work the docks and got tickets from the reporters all the time. Sweetheart of a guy! Died way too young.”
And now Burke’s—which outlived the News American, Connelly’s, the McCormick spice factory and the days when working ships and the rough mugs who manned them put in at Pratt and Light Streets—has joined Pinky Ptaszynski on the other side of the Patapsco.
Said owner William Beery III—son of founder William A. Beery, Jr., who died in 2008: “It’s time to move on.”
I would like to argue that Burke’s was fated to become a Royal Farms Store—a Royal Farms Store for the love of God!—due to the kind of socioeconomic factors that make for a good doctoral thesis.
Because of distractions unthinkable a half-generation ago, the speed at which those distractions move and the fact that few people either have or make the time to sit face-to-face in a brass-tacked leather booth with another human being for the time it takes to eat a hot roast beef platter with real silverware and cloth napkins.
American families eating microwaved dinners in shifts between karate lessons, Wheel of Fortune and cheerleading practice has been old news for more than a generation.
People speed to work on Interstate-95 while brushing rubber egg crumbs off their chins, changing lanes and texting in the office lunch order.
Coffee is breakfast.
And Burke’s Café—which had pewter plates and tankards on the walls and calves’ liver on the menu before closing last December—is becoming a Royal Farms Store.
IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT!
Except that none of those “going to hell in a hand basket” arguments are quite on target.
The Inner Harbor is hopping with places to eat, more now than ever.
“There’s a ton of restaurants, all around us,” said Tom Herrmann, a Beery son-in-law who once chased and captured a gunman who held up Burke’s for $240 in 1978, two years before Harborplace opened.
(Anyone remember when Little Italy restaurant owners, always squawking at the front of “the sky is falling” line, complained 30 years ago that competition from a commercialized Inner Harbor would hurt their livelihoods?)
One joint closes and another takes its place. The new restaurant may last a couple of months or a few years. It is replaced and—except in cases like Connelly’s, William Donald Schaefer’s favorite eatery when he wasn’t going to McDonald’s in Anne Arundel County—eventually forgotten.
In this way, cities are transformed and stay alive.
But the business taking Burke’s place sells cigarettes and coffee (thank you, Mr. Redding), dirty magazines, lottery tickets, condoms, bags of ice, over-priced groceries, refrigerated sandwiches wrapped in cellophane and—if new management is to be believed—onion rings reminiscent of the big fat ones Burke’s was known for.
It will be wildly successful when measured by the ledger book.
And that’s a crying shame.
"I had the fried oyster special, two patties with toast and German potato salad. Also less than $2 …” — John Dorsey, The Sun, November, 26, 1972
For some, Burke’s was a civil servants’ bar, tending to the hungers and headaches of bureaucrats from the nearby state, federal and municipal office buildings along with the good old boys from City Hall.
"Burke’s was like a bunch of other joints downtown—the Calvert House, the House of Welsh. It was a hangout for government workers, the hard drinking kind that peopled the bureaucracies of the 1960s and ‘70s,” said Driscoll, a long-time City Hall fixture. "These places preserved a time when Sinatra ruled the airwaves. They thought themselves ‘edgy’ for having the Tijuana Brass on the jukebox. They were the last of the dinosaurs.”
Dinosaurs like the daily paper, whose workers found their way to Burke’s between editions after that day’s edition had gone to bed.
As newspapers began shedding staff in the face of corporate ineptness and the Internet, Burke’s became the site of many “so-long-it’s-been-good-to-know-you” farewells for reporters and editors who once met sources there.
The retirement party for David Michael Ettlin took place at Burke’s on May 31, 2007, some four decades after the City College graduate and former supermarket grocery cart herder first wandered into the Calvert Street newsroom willing to do anything.
“Early in my days on the cops beat, Burke's was the place I could order lunch or mid-shift dinner—and then, when I'd get called for an emergency, the manager would hold my meal and wave me out the door,” remembered Ettlin, best remembered for his long tenure as The Sun's late rewrite man.
“Such was the case for the spectacular 14-alarm fire on May 20, 1969, that destroyed the Lasting Products paint factory on Franklintown Road," he added. "I never got back for that sandwich.”
"The food was okay, but the ambiance was terrific,” said Ettlin, whose second ex-wife worked for a time as a Burke’s waitress. “More importantly, Burke's became one of the handful of places where the newsroom late shift would adjourn, and exchange lies over a frosted mug of beer” until last call.
“In a way, it was the last [newspaper] haunt after hard times and the wrecker's ball took down the Peabody Book Store and Beer Stube in Mount Vernon," he said.
My brother Victor—a Sunpapers’ copy boy during his college days before embarking on an editing career in Rhode Island—had a taste of the old days in the 1990s, just as they were dropping behind the horizon forever.
“I felt like a real newspaperman at Burke’s because there I was an equal, sitting around talking about stories and sipping Scotch,” said Victor, who also tended bar at Light and Lombard between newspaper gigs and once, serving a meal late at night, was almost accosted by a customer on the thuggish side for serving bleu cheese salad dressing instead of the requested Ranch.
Said Victor: “In the newsroom, I was a copy boy. At Burke’s, I was one of the boys."
Like me, Victor’s experiences at Burke’s go back to childhood, when—on the way home from Sunday dinners with our grandparents in Canton and Highlandtown—Dad would often treat us to dessert while he and my mother had a nightcap.
(On other occasions, Dad would torture us by “floating” the idea of going to Burke’s for a roast beef sandwich as we approached Light Street—back in the days when Pratt Street ran west and Lombard ran east—only to drop the possibility once we were past the restaurant.)
Remembers Victor: "There's a picture above my stove of me sitting on my grandmother's lap. I'm sipping a Shirley Temple out of a glass [better] suited for adult beverages.
“The picture was taken at a back booth at Burke's. Years later I would drink Dewar’s Scotch out of the same kind of glass while visiting the long bar with newspaper colleagues twice my age. Years after that, I found myself tending bar at Burke's and pouring a drink for the great newspaperman, dear friend and mentor, Norman Wilson.
“Norm died not long after I poured that drink—rum Martini with a black olive garnish.”
Maybe someone will take a cell phone photo of their grandchild drinking from a bottle of soda while waiting in line at the new “Farm Store” downtown.
And maybe that kid will find the picture one day, print it out and tack it on his kitchen cabinet long after the northwest corner of Light and Lombard streets has become a place to charge your George Jetson jet pack.
And just maybe the Royal Farms really will serve onion rings based on the old Burke’s recipe.