When the old-timers mention the bygone days, the gathering place they invariably talk about is the Horn & Horn, 304 East Baltimore Street, a bustling hangout which stayed open all night long from the dawning of the 20th century until that dreary winter morning in 1977 when the owners abruptly stuck a “Closed” sign in the window and signaled the end of several eras around here.
What kind of place was Horn & Horn?
Well, if it’s 7 o’clock in the morning in the 1950s, you could find three-term Mayor Tommy (The Elder) D’Alesandro huddled over scrambled eggs to talk City Hall election tactics with the northwest Baltimore political boss Jack Pollack.
If it’s 2 o’clock in the morning in the 1960s, you might find some of the famous ladies from The Block, half a block away, ladies who have climbed back into their clothes and arrived here for their post-strip pancakes and bacon special.
There’s Blaze Starr, there’s Irma the Body, there’s Virginia Belle and Her Twin Liberty Bells.
If it’s seven o’clock in the evening in the early 1970s, you might find Bob Embry, the city’s housing commissioner under Mayor William Donald Schaefer, convening for dinner after a Monday city council meeting to toss around some new ideas for the Baltimore City Fair, which is helping to lift the city out of its post-riot doldrums.
It was, in short, a place where the town’s movers and shakers gathered to eat and talk, and see and be seen, and make the Earth move a little.
Or, as Gilbert Sandler described it in his marvelous book, Small Town Baltimore, Horn & Horn’s Restaurant was, “as Times Square was to old Broadway, the street’s soul…the only restaurant where Baltimore’s rich and poor, winners and losers, judges and pimps, merchant princes and numbers writers, fashion executives and exotic dancers, mayors and governors and city hall types alike all sat down next to one another comfortably, sharing time and space and conversation.”
It was also a place to get a pretty decent meal.
Maybe you got the house specialty – the Red Ball special of corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes; your waitress taking orders from half a dozen people without writing down a word but somehow managed to bring everything back exactly as everybody ordered it.
Also certain: the veteran counterman, Kelly Raines, knew your name and knew how you liked your meal prepared.
But nothing lasts forever, and it’s nearly four decades since they closed the place – and replaced it with a Wendy’s carry-out and, after that, another eating place whose name has been lost to memory.
Then, approaching the new century, the city tore down the old Horn & Horn building and several adjoining spots and eventually put up a 375-car parking garage – and a new restaurant.
You go there today and you pick up a tray and serve yourself.
It’s the Big Apple Tree Café, and it still draws courthouse types and cops and others from the east side of the city’s central business and financial district.
The café offers a pay-by-weight hot or cold buffet. There’s seating for a couple hundred people, once you navigate your way inside past the handful of poor souls lying about on Holliday Street, along the restaurant’s east side.
On a recent morning one fellow’s curled in the fetal position, sleeping off a bad night. A few feet from him, a guy in a baseball cap squats with his hand out as a lady in high heels steps around the fellow’s handful of large plastic trash bags filled with his belongings.
A few feet from him, two men huddle with their knapsacks in the morning’s heat beneath a sign reading “Bacon, Egg & Cheese Sandwich: $3.14.”
It feels a little bit like a metaphor for a changing America: the personalization of service replaced by homogenized, mass-production, look-alike food service; and lots of people parking their cars ($18 for the day) and arriving so hungry to get on with their lives that they speed past society’s leftovers and try as best they can not to notice them.