The gyros are gone but lake trout has been added to the bill of fare. The booths and the counter are the same. Hanging over the grill is a row of new flatscreen TVs, as though whatever the talking heads are yakking about is more important than what the bus driver in for an egg sandwich is telling the school teacher on the next stool.
Best of all, “His Royal Grillness”—“Mr. Bruce,” the king with his spatula scepter—is back on the short order line, turning out pancakes, omelets, and home fries.
All is well again at the corner of Howard and 25th streets in North Baltimore, where, just before Thanksgiving last year, the New Wyman Park Restaurant closed after 80 years. In early October, new ownership fired up the stoves and it debuted as Kay’s Place.
“I see new faces but my old customers are coming back,” said cook Bruce Purnell, 70, a two-decade veteran of the New Wyman when it was owned by Spiro Conits, who stopped by for a peek at his old haunt the other day.
One of the new faces learning the diner trade is waitress and Southwestern High School Class of ’85 graduate Daphney Jones. Asked what the hardest part of her job was, Jones said, “dealing with Bruce.”
They both laughed and got back to work, Jones writing the tickets and Purnell putting them above the grill in the order they came in: waffles, shrimp and grits, and the all-purpose egg sandwich with full strips of bacon hanging over the side.
The owner is Cia Carter, 36, the chef/entrepreneur behind the Miss Carter’s Kitchen restaurants at Clay and Liberty Streets downtown (now under renovation) and on Edmondson Avenue. Kay’s Place is named for Carter’s finance and business partner, 45-year-old Kevin Maultsby.
“He knew the history of this place,” Carter said. “He knew they did a good business. People came in out of nowhere when we opened up. Some of them got on the phone to tell people the place was open again.”
Like many diner owners, Carter does business from a booth in the back. “I try to make my presence known every day,” she said. With her sleeves rolled up as she goes over paperwork, a tattoo of the word “Loyalty” in cursive is visible on the inside of her left arm.
“Loyalty to myself,” she explained, “and the people I love.”
In the first weeks that Kay’s Place filled the void left by the Wyman, Carter also received a handful of reporters looking to document the changing of the guard. Though now spiced with soul instead of olive oil and lemon, Carter’s classic and comforting menu is pretty much the same. For a while, it will be heavy on breakfast.
A graduate of Lincoln Tech Culinary Institute in Howard County, Carter has added candied yams, collard greens (seasoned with neck bones), cajun fried fish and grits, and a chicken wing and cheeseburger combo special.
Though it was well before noon, South Baltimore author Mark Hannon had the wing and burger lunch special not long ago. “I wish I hadn’t already eaten breakfast because the choices around me looked so good,” Hannon said.
Customers who have enjoyed the dishes at Carter’s other restaurants have included Michael K. Williams, the recently deceased actor famous for portraying Omar on The Wire, whom, she said, ordered a takeout salmon dinner. Ravens superstar quarterback Lamar Jackson has also been sighted at Miss Carter’s Kitchen on Edmondson Avenue.
“I was at the hairdresser when they called me and I flew out of the chair to get over there,” Carter said. “He wanted banana pudding, but I didn’t have the ingredients on hand.” (Who knows, maybe one day you’ll see Jackson on a stool at 25th and Howard shooting the breeze with Bruce.)
When the New Wyman closed, customer after customer had the same thing to say, dozens of spins on the same thing: “I just felt extra-Baltimore there…”
Noted Baltimore writer and foodie Richard Gorelick stopped in for an egg sandwich the week that Kay’s Place opened and said that the civic vibe endures.
“When people feel good about Baltimore, they have in their minds places like New Wyman Park and Kay’s Place,” Gorelick said. “Places at crossroads can be like that, because so many people feel like members in good standing.”