In a time when fast food was not a common term, when that kind of restaurant was not ten deep on every block, when eating out didn’t mean eating quick, there was a place to eat in Baltimore that fell pleasantly between fine, fancy dining and the automat. It was the Oriole Cafeteria.
Don’t think “cafeteria” as in public school. This was a sit-down restaurant, but the food was served cafeteria style. There were newer, more modern locations that eventually were the only locations until the Oriole disappeared completely, but the one I remember best was the one in the city that was housed in a very cool old building, probably a few decades old when I first saw it. When you entered from the street, you saw the main dining floor stretching out in front of you, right to the back of the lower level, with simple tables and chairs filling the area. Around the perimeter, there was a railing that, to the right, took you around to the serving area, where you picked up a tray and slid it along the metal track as you asked for the food you wanted. When you were finished eating and had paid, you exited around the other side and out the door.
Once you were served, you could grab a table on the main floor, or, as my family always did, head up the staircases to the upper level, which covered only the back half of the main floor. You didn’t have to worry about juggling your tray on the way up the stairs because there were dumb waiters on either side at the bottom, and you simply loaded your tray onto one of them, pushed the button, walked up, and picked up your tray upstairs. There were no waitresses, per se, but there were stations located around the dining areas where you could grab another piece of flatware, a glass, an extra plate, or a napkin; everything you needed was almost within arm’s reach.
My standard fare was the chicken pot pie. Oh, yeah. The real deal, freshly made, and full of all the good stuff. No ingredients label to worry about, no calories to count, no cholesterol to fret over. The food then was fun to eat, tasted good, and nobody cared about how it was made or what was in it. Maybe it wasn’t “healthy,” but you can be sure it it didn’t have all the chemicals packed into today’s restaurant fare.
After a while, that Oriole was closed and likely demolished to make way for some sort of new building with no character. Progress. We went to the others after that, offering the same chicken pot pie but served in a rather bland setting. The chain finally folded, probably by the end of the seventies. I’ve never seen anything like my favorite Oriole since, but I still remember the good food and the old city atmosphere that I always drank in as soon as I was through the door.