An End to Fish Sandwiches - The Roost Baltimore
An end to fish sandwiches
The Roost eatery in Northwest Baltimore closed last month, and the late owner's daughter is selling it
By Andrea K. Walker
Originally published May 25, 2006
You didn't come to The Roost for its ambience.
The carryout on Reisterstown Road in Northwest Baltimore still had the same shabby hut-shaped building from its days as a burger joint in the 1970s. The staff was a little surly, the neighborhood not the plushest and the wait for food almost always long.
What you did come for were the fish sandwiches, fried golden brown and served on white bread with a little hot sauce. Or the fish dinner with two sides. The fish was so popular that just about everyone knew the carryout not as "The Roost," but simply as "Lake Trout."
But Lake Trout, which had become a local institution, with lines that stretched out the door even in the middle of the night, is no more.
The owner of the restaurant, Doris Williams, died of ovarian cancer at age 69 in September. Her only child, a prominent doctor in Washington, closed the carryout for good last month and has decided to sell the family business.
"I kept the business open for a while just because I couldn't imagine it being closed," said Dr. Deborah Williams, chief of the division of cardiology at Howard University Hospital. "But after a while it didn't smell the same, it didn't look the same. And when I realized it wasn't her anymore, I knew it was time to get out. It wasn't her dream anymore."
Doris Williams opened The Roost as a fried chicken and burger carryout in 1974 after acquiring a Burger Chef fast-food franchise. Before that she had worked at a Kentucky Fried Chicken, rising from cashier to general manager, her daughter said. She was a single mother, and she thought running her own business would give her more control of her time.
Business was good for the first few years, but by 1978 burgers weren't selling well and the business was faltering. A customer suggested she sell fish. She knew nothing about fish but said she'd give it a try.
"Then I realized, Lord, I don't know how to clean or cook a fish. I took one end and went to cut his head off and I just stopped and looked at him," Doris Williams told The Sun in 2002.
Williams wasn't a very good cook before opening her restaurant, her daughter said.
"Growing up, we didn't have home-cooked meals because she was busy all the time," Deborah Williams said. "We would eat Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner."
But over the years she concocted recipes for peach cobbler and macaroni and cheese, and, most importantly, the seasoning for her fish batter.
"As the years went by, Momma built that fish part of the business so big she was cooking thousands of pounds of fish a day," Williams said.
Lake Trout had a diverse customer base - from the suit-and-tie to the hip-hop crowd. Workers would come by on lunch breaks. Families stopped by for Sunday dinner after church. The younger crowd came by the carryout, which was open til 3 a.m. many nights, after a night of partying. And almost always there was a line.
"I hated to wait in line, but I just did it," said Paul Taylor, who leads Baltimore's Small Business Resource Center. "It was the taste this thing had. Whatever batter they used, it was something you couldn't find anywhere else."
Taylor hopes to work with Williams to help find buyers who would keep the eatery intact. Williams said the Whiteford, Taylor, Preston law firm is handling the early stages of the sale.
Raymond Haysbert Sr., a longtime Baltimore businessman who owns the Forum Caterers and was once chief executive officer of Parks Sausage Co., said The Roost was one of the pioneers of lake trout carryouts that came to dot the city.
"It's a real loss," Haysbert said of the closing. "It was almost an institution instead of a restaurant. Lake Trout really started a whole trend that has been adopted by the whole community."
A month after the restaurant fried its last piece of fish, devoted customers stopped by this week shocked to discover it had closed.
Teddy Miller, who owns SnowBall City across the street from The Roost, said about 20 people a day come and ask him what happened. Miller, 25, said he's lost a lot of business from customers who would eat a snowball while waiting in line for fish. "It was always packed," he said.
Waymond Gale, 59, of Towson, said he first came to Lake Trout in 1979 when a friend at the Social Security Administration brought him there for lunch.
"If you wanted a good home-cooked fish sandwich, this was the place to come," he said. "Where am I going to go now? This was a tradition."
Williams said she thought about keeping the restaurant open but thought it would be too hard to run from Washington. The carryout was closed for two days in March by the Baltimore City Health Department for violations, including mold on the ceiling, according to inspection documents.
In a letter written to the department, Williams said the manager didn't make the repairs as she'd asked. She'd hoped some of the workers could gather enough money to buy the place, but those plans fell through.
Her mother spent just about every day in the restaurant. She asked to be buried in a cemetery off Reisterstown Road, near her business.
As some of the business licenses on the company were ready to expire, Deborah Williams had to make a final decision. She decided that so much of the business was her mother. Without her, it wouldn't be the same.
"It was her dream, it wasn't mine," Williams said. "When a person leaves, they take their dream with them."