As he began to pack away decades of memorabilia Monday, Bill Beery III recalled the glory days of Burke’s Café & Restaurant.
There was former Gov. Marvin Mandel and his entourage of lawyers eating there nearly each day during his corruption trial in 1977, Broadway Joe Namath and other New York Jets teammates ordering steaks before moving on to party at the Playboy Club up the street, and the regulars that included local newspaper scribes, attorneys and Internal Revenue Service agents.
Mo’Nique, the comedienne from Woodlawn who won an Academy Award last year, got her start performing at Burke’s upstairs Comedy Factory Outlet on a dare from her brother. Robin Williams once showed up and performed two hours of standup in the 1980s.
“And Chris Rock used to come in, and he wasn’t even funny then,” Beery said. “I’ve seen it all.”
Beery, 63, sold the inimitable, 76-year-old Burke’s for $2 million last week and shuttered it on New Year’s Eve to make way for a convenience store. Beery’s parents, Bill II and Cricket, opened the restaurant.
The restaurant, notable for its homemade onion rings, steaks, Chesapeake seafood specialties and a colorful family crest near the front door at the corner of Light and Lombard streets, was nearly all things to all people. It was closed for only five hours each day, opening at 7 a.m. and closing at 2 a.m., during which a shot and a beer were usually always on order.
Beery cited the city’s high vacancy rate in the downtown business district and a lack of reasonably priced parking near the Inner Harbor as some of the reasons for moving on.
“It’s really hard — this area has lost a lot of people,” he said, citing how 1,700 employees from Legg Mason, once located across the street from Burke’s, have moved to new headquarters in Harbor East and a vacancy rate reported as high as 40 percent has shaved off another 3,800 workers.
“And there is no parking,” he added. “This is probably the most beautiful city on the East Coast. It’s got possibilities, it’s got so much. They’ve got to concentrate to get jobs back here.”
Mike Evitts, spokesman for the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc., a nonprofit that supports city businesses, disagreed, and called Beery’s observations “disingenuous.”
Evitts said Monday that Burke’s time as a mainstay city restaurant simply may have passed, citing other chain restaurants that have opened up nearby, such as Kona Grill and Sullivan’s Steakhouse.
“It dropped off the radar,” Evitts said, of Burke’s. “I haven’t been there for a while.”
Evitts said that despite the Great Recession and high commercial and business vacancy rates, downtown Baltimore remains vibrant and filled with residents and businesses.
“It’s no secret that city center has been working to revitalize itself,” he said. “But in the many years that Burke’s has been open, downtown employment has never been at a higher rate.”
The sale to Royal Farms means the Beery family must pack up and move its business out before the convenience store moves into the first-floor space.
The Comedy Factory Outlet will remain open until Feb. 12 and then relocate to the Power Plant Live!, Beery said.
“Royal Farms said they will keep some of our memorabilia,” he said, adding he plans to share a guarded family secret recipe with the new owners.
“And they are going to sell Burke’s onion rings.”