Albert Joseph DeFelice, a 93-year-old drummer born and raised in Highlandtown, was enjoying a couple of hot dogs with chili, onion and mustard last month in the old neighborhood. He sat at a green, Formica-topped booth near the back of the G&A, the Greek diner at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Eaton street famous since 1927 for wieners of the Coney Island variety.
The narrow storefront was standing-room-only, a mid-July gathering filling every booth and stool. Such crowds were common when DeFelice was a teenager between the Great Depression and World War II. Business pretty much stayed that way through the 1970s.
But the world changes like the air around you and, of the Big Three historic restaurants east of Patterson Park — Matthews’s Pizza, the still-mourned Haussner’s and G&A — only the tomato pie mecca remains. There is also Ikaros further east in Greektown but, having only been around since 1969, the King of Calamari is a relative newcomer.
For the last couple of decades, a full house at G&A has been rare, even at lunchtime. But Thursday, July 15th was the farewell party and the place was packed. Like so many of its customers, the G&A is moving over the county line to White Marsh. Saturday, June 17, the door closed in Highlandtown for the last time.
Which meant that Uncle Albert (my father’s first cousin on the Prato side of their mothers) and about 100 others had to bid a proper adieu with a couple of Berks finest and a plate of fries with gravy.
Many had tears in their eyes, and not from the diced onions.
They’d been taken here as children after being fitted for school clothes at Epstein’s a few doors away, the pre-mall department store now a very large hole in the ground for construction of new apartments.
Others, back when “Young Tommy” D’Alesandro was the mayor of Baltimore and the Orioles were a championship team, brought their kids for a dog with a promise to visit Kramer’s candy store if they cleaned their plate.
Kramer’s was an old school confectionary that weighed crystals of rock candy on a tiny scale and sold it in small, white paper bags. The address is now a Peruvian chicken joint that perfumes Eastern Avenue with the aroma of roasted fowl the way Kramer’s once spread the scent of homemade caramel popcorn through an exhaust fan in the transom.
Along with the folks ordering nostalgia on a bun — one patron knew the exact booth where he’d last sat at the G&A with his late mother in the early 1960s — newcomers showed up out of curiosity.
And none of them — not even third-generation owner Andy Farantos, who with his wife Alexia served the last customers with a heavy heart — owns the Star Spangled story that Uncle Albert loves to tell.
The corner directly outside the G&A has been a bus stop since the “Red Rocket ” trolley of the No. 26 line took workers to and from Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point. Early in 1945, 18-year-old DeFelice and a buddy were out there, waiting.
“One of the owners saw us and asked what we were doing out there so early. We told him we were going down to the Fifth Regiment Armory to be inducted in the Army and he told us to come in.”
The man in the white apron was either Gregory Diacumakos (the “G”) or Alex Diacumakos (the “A”), the Spartan ancestors of Andy Farantos.
“He sat us down and didn’t bother to take our order. Out came plates of eggs and pancakes and sausage and bacon and home fries and toast and as much coffee and juice as we wanted,” he said with a big smile and a World War II Veteran cap on his head. “When we were done eating he slapped us on the back and told us to come home safe.”
It just might be the best breakfast the affable drummer — who never fired a weapon in combat as the military used his skills to entertain the troops — ever had.
A few booths behind Uncle Albert, who ate with his niece Debbie DeCarlo and her brother Gene DeCarlo, Jr., both customers since childhood, sat Pam Baer West, age 51. Pam’s grandmother — Betty Lou Hampton Glass, late of South Lehigh Street and the mother of seven — was a G&A waitress for more than three decades, back when the diner was able to keep good help for generations.
“We gave Andy a plaque when she died [in July, 1987] saying that she worked at the G&A for 32 years,” said West. “When I was growing up my mom worked at Epstein’s, so of course I spent a lot of time at the G&A. We all knew Andy’s parents.”
Like many customers through the years, West had a favorite booth. On the day of the goodbye party it was already taken so she and a friend made do with one near the back where a “Guess Your Weight” arcade amusement once stood.
“We called it the waitress booth, it was in the corner closest to the end of the counter,” she said. “It’s where they kept their stuff and sat on breaks.”
Despite being steeped in G&A tradition, Pam has long diverted from the expected when placing her order. “I always order the same thing. A burger with fries and gravy. But even if I wasn’t eating I just loved being here watching MomMom work.”
Problems with his landlord persuaded Andy to leave Eastern Avenue just six years shy of the diner’s centennial and it pains him. Being synonymous with something iconic for close to a century has been both a blessing and a curse.
Farantos is a superb cook and has long promoted his brisket, crab cakes, and shrimp salad. And while customers have politely listened to the day’s specials, the response was often the same: “Two Coney dogs with everything, fries and gravy please.”
Which will top the menu at the G&A in early October when the diner reopens 13 miles at 11550 Philadelphia Road, and a universe away from its roots in the old neighborhood.
Rafael Alvarez can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org