Food & Drink
The Peppermill Celebrates 40 Years of Stiff Drinks and Camaraderie
The beloved Lutherville restaurant—known in many circles as “God’s Waiting Room"—has attracted an older clientele ever since opening in 1982.
When 86-year-old Martin McGinn moved to Towson last summer to be closer to his family, he left behind longtime friendships, bridge partners, and golf buddies in Princeton, New Jersey. But the widower soon settled into a 55-and-older apartment complex in his new community and started looking for a place to “get some fresh food and companionship.”
A neighbor suggested The Peppermill in Lutherville, a beloved, 40-year-old restaurant known in many circles as “God’s Waiting Room,” “Ruck’s North” after a nearby funeral home, and “Wrinkles.”
Sure enough, McGinn, a retired chemist, found his niche. “Most of the people are my age and have a story to tell,” he says. “It’s a cast of characters.”
And that’s just what the owners were hoping for.
Ever since opening in 1982, the 265-seat restaurant in Heaver Plaza has attracted an older clientele. “We were thinking [ages] 50 and above,” says Dave Jones, who is an original owner with his business partner, Rick Ziegel, and Jones’ late father-in-law, Tommy Perrera. “We always went for the same market.”
It’s a healthy demographic in Baltimore County, where one in four residents is 60 or older, according to a 2021 American Community Survey. And the number of senior citizens has been rising steadily in the county since the ’70s, when U.S. Census figures showed a growth of 50,000 residents age 65 and older between 1975 and 1990.
Laura Riley, director of Baltimore County Department of Aging, which has 20 senior centers, points out the importance of social interactions among an older population. “It’s very positive for your physical and mental health,” she says. “We all thrive from having interactions with others.”
That is one of the draws of The Peppermill for Sally Nesbitt, 73, who lives in Lutherville. She has been coming to the restaurant every day since it opened, first with her husband, who died 14 years ago, and now by herself or with friends. “I like meeting the people,” says the retiree, sipping a glass of Pinot Grigio during a recent visit. “The food is good, and the owners and bartenders make everyone comfortable.”
Dave Jones hadn’t planned to go into the restaurant business, but then he fell in love with and married Perrera’s daughter, Darlene. At the time, Perrera and Manny DiPaulo operated Diavolo’s in Timonium, before changing the name to Turf Inn in 1974. (It’s now Hightopps Backstage Grille.) Jones and Ziegel, who is Darlene’s cousin, worked together at the Turf Inn. When the Perrera-DiPaulo partnership split up, Jones, Ziegel, and Perrera started looking for a new location.
They found a space about three miles south that had previously housed four failed restaurants: Mason’s Heritage House, T.J’s Greenery, Knott’s Landing, and Gibson’s. Some blamed the closures on a lack of windows in the place. But that didn’t deter the restaurateurs. “We took a chance,” Jones says. “Tio Pepe has no windows. It doesn’t have a problem.”
From the outset, the restaurant was a hit with older diners for its reasonable food and drink prices and congenial atmosphere. “We were successful at the Turf Inn,” Jones says. “I think we carried a lot of that down here. We brought the menu we were accustomed to. We knew what people were looking for.”
The name Peppermill was suggested by Jones’ sister-in-law, Terri McGinn (no relation to Martin McGinn), who visited a similarly named establishment in Las Vegas and liked the sound of it. “We didn’t want to call it Dave’s or Rick’s,” Ziegel says. “Then, Terri came up with the name.”
When the restaurant opened, they had 500 Lucite pepper mills, but they kept breaking or disappearing from the tables. “We were going broke [from replacing pepper mills],” Ziegel cracks. “Then we bought wooden pepper mills.” The 18-inch grinders aren’t kept on the tables anymore, but customers can request freshly ground pepper for their meals.
The menu has a range of affordable items, including sandwiches, burgers, crab cakes, meatloaf, and throwbacks like calf’s liver and onions and chicken Baltimore with crabmeat and mushrooms. Even splurges like a 5-ounce lobster tail ($23.95) and a 6-ounce filet mignon ($22.95) don’t break the bank. Daily specials feature traditional dishes like oysters Rockefeller, fresh rockfish, and tuna salad.
But The Peppermill hasn’t totally ignored the culinary revolution going on in the United States, where ramen shops and vegan bakeries are the rage. Though it leans toward traditional offerings, it has taken baby steps in that direction with offerings like shrimp tacos, beet salad with goat’s cheese, and swordfish picatta.
Still, the restaurant may be best known for its seasonal shad roe—the egg sac of the female shad fish, which is broiled with lemon and water and sometimes gussied up with bacon. Every spring, a large sign, fronting busy York Road, blares its arrival: “Shad Roe Is In. The Run Is On.” “It’s the age group,” explains Jones about the dish’s popularity. “It’s what people like to eat.”
THE RESTAURANT MIGHT BE BEST KNOWN FOR ITS SHAD ROE, WHICH IS BROILED WITH LEMON AND GUSSIED UP WITH BACON.
While Jones, 72, handles myriad duties at The Peppermill, from payroll to changing light fixtures, his partner Ziegel, 65, runs the kitchen, among other responsibilities. Ziegel learned how to make several of the restaurant’s recipes, including Maryland crab soup and oyster stew, from his late mother, Concetta “Chettie” Ziegel.
He started at the Turf Inn as a busboy when he was a 14-year-old high-school student before moving into the kitchen as a line cook. He attended what is now Towson University, studying business and economics, but his heart didn’t stray far from The Peppermill. Ziegel doesn’t cook as much these days, instead leaving the day-to-day preparations to head chef T.J. Waldt. But he’s involved in ordering and buying the food and deciding what will appear on the menu. Jones and Ziegel have aged with their clientele.
“Now, we’re the old people,” Jones says with a laugh.
But this isn’t the end of the line for The Peppermill. A new generation is already involved in running the restaurant: Jones’ daughter, Heather Allen, 43, and Ziegel’s son, Brady Ziegel, who turns 28 in March. Allen works in the office, handling payroll, paying invoices, and slowly taking over her dad’s managerial duties. She’s been working at the restaurant since she was 16, first as a hostess, then as a waitress while studying public relations at Loyola University. But she got her first taste of The Peppermill as a child and remembers being able to order anything on the menu.
“I thought it was so cool that the family had a restaurant,” she says. “I remember birthdays here and the celebrations with my grandparents.”
Brady Ziegel knew from a young age that he was going to work at the restaurant. His first impressions were drinking non-alcoholic Shirley Temple cocktails and digging into bowls of Goldfish crackers at the bar when he was around six. By the time he was 15, he was bussing tables while he was a student at Hereford High School. At 15, he started cooking. “I would watch the guys [in the kitchen], and pick up on what they did every day,” he says.
After high school, he realized he wasn’t interested in going to college. “This is what I wanted to do,” he says.
Today, Brady helps out in the kitchen but also spends time in the dining room and bar, greeting customers and making sure everything is running smoothly.
“Brady is a total asset,” Jones says. “He can go from the front of the house to the back of the house.”
While the food scene in Baltimore has become more trendy, Allen and Brady don’t plan to change anything about The Peppermill, which is just fine with its patrons.
“It’s always nice to know that some things will remain the same, from having oysters only in months ending in ‘R’ and shad roe running in March, plus all our classic Baltimore dishes, from sour beef and dumplings to soft-shell crabs,” Allen says. “So many patrons come in and say, this place reminds me of my grandmother, or, my grandfather brought me after soccer practices. I just think that’s so special.”
Like most restaurants, The Peppermill had to figure out how to navigate the pandemic. At the height of the closures and with a high-risk clientele, it switched to carry-out only, keeping as many employees as it could. “We’re survivors,” Jones says. “We adjusted.”
Many of the staff have been with the family for decades. Annalee Cary, a hostess and server, has clocked in 33 years. She watched Allen and Brady Ziegel grow up. “Brady and Heather are the future,” she says. “They’re going to keep it going for the next 40 years.”
Vince DiGiacomo started as a busboy and dishwasher 40 years ago, working his way up the chain of command, becoming a bartender and then a manager. Even his wife, Karen Peters, works at the restaurant as a waitress. “They’ve treated me well,” DiGiacomo says. “And they leave me alone to do my job.”
Waitress Darlene Beck, who worked at Diavolo’s and the Turf Inn, followed Jones, Ziegel, and Perrera to The Peppermill. “I love my job,” she says. “I love who I work for. They treat me like family.”
At the restaurant, she is known as Dar Beck since another waitress is named Darlene. She also earned another moniker, Dar the Star. “Tommy [Perrera] gave me the name, and it stuck,” says Beck, 75. “I have a lot of regular customers. I know what they eat, what they drink. I’ve met a lot of nice people.”
She isn’t offended by the restaurant’s nicknames poking fun at the septuagenarians, octogenarians, and, yes, nonagenarians who frequent the place. “It’s cute,” she says. “People laugh about it.”
She recalls a diner who was looking for his dining companion one evening. “Have you seen a little old lady?” he asked Beck. Her amused response: “Look around. They’re everywhere.”
Though Beck has cut her work schedule to three days, she has no plans to retire. “As long as God gives me legs, I’m working,” she says with a laugh. “I like my apron.”
While Beck mostly roams the main dining room, lots of patrons choose the bar instead. The 25-seat bar area, which also has seven tables and six booths, is its own hub. Since owner Tommy Perrera’s time, the restaurant has prided itself on its “stiff drinks,” Heather Allen says.
There’s no official happy hour, but on a recent weekday at 4:30 p.m., every seat was taken. Notably, no one was buried in their cell phone. It seemed fitting that an old-school print edition of The Baltimore Sun occupied a spot on the green Corian bar top.
One of the bar’s longtime customers, Dick Roden, sat on his favorite stool, drinking two bottles of Budweiser and joking with Jones, only a few weeks before he passed away in his sleep in November at age 90. The Korean War veteran, who lived in Cockeysville, found solace in the company and the food, preferring to eat his favorite meal of pork loin, mashed potatoes, and sauerkraut at a table. “A booth is for eating,” he declared. “The bar is for drinking.”
He leaves behind a legacy. He was one of The Peppermill’s first customers. At the time, he gave the owners a $1 bill to get them started. Forty years later, during an anniversary celebration in October, he gave them another dollar. Both dollar bills are framed and hanging in the restaurant office. “It’s a keepsake,” Jones says.
“It’s hard when someone dies,” Brady acknowledges. “They’re like family. We always remember them.”
Jake Jacobs, 83, often stops by with his partner and her friend. On a recent afternoon, the threesome had been playing cards at a local senior center when they decided to get a bite to eat. “We said, ‘Let’s go to the Wrinkle Room,’” Jacobs shares with a laugh while drinking a Coors Light. “The food is good, the drinks are good, and it’s great getting to know everyone. It’s our Cheers.”
Perhaps the patron who draws the most attention is 98-year-old Jack King of Lutherville, who served as a Navy ensign in World War II. He spent his service time in officer-training school in the States. The affable widower holds court most days at the bar.
“It’s a friendly bunch of people,” he says, while drinking the first of two Johnnie Walker Blacks on the rocks. “There are ladies who have lost their husbands. There are men who have lost their wives. It’s not a pick-up joint. Everybody enjoys talking to each other.”
Now, Martin McGinn has joined the group of regulars. He comes to The Peppermill two or three times a week, arriving at 3:30 p.m. by Uber or chauffeured by a granddaughter, and waits for his son, Dr. Martin McGinn, a Towson optometrist, to pick him up around 5 p.m. He may drink a glass or two of Chardonnay and order a cup of oyster stew at the bar while chatting with other patrons.
“I love it,” he says. “It’s like I’ve been coming here my whole life. Everyone makes you feel welcome.”