Baltimore's Diner Daze

Our twelve favorites

By Suzanne Loudermilk

The Bel-Loc Diner has been a “Baltimore landmark since 1964.” –Photo by Stacy Zarin

Happy days are here again.

Well, actually, they’ve been here all along in the cozy booths of Baltimore’s many diners. You don’t have to drive far before stumbling on one of these chrome, neon-glowing monuments to days gone by. The menus tend to nurture visitors with comfort food and homemade desserts, and with servers who treat you like family, Hon. But what exactly is a diner? There’s no exact definition, so we decided to look for places that serve sumptuous breakfasts, pour unlimited cups of coffee, and dish out a retro vibe. (Of course, nowadays, diners are just as likely to be brand-new replicas of their namesakes and offer martinis and prime steak dinners, too!) Here are our 12 favorites.

Bel-Loc Diner

1700 E. Joppa Rd., Parkville, 410-668-2525.

Why we come here: Breakfast is served all day long, and the cheerful waitresses know the regulars by name. Even if they don’t know you, they treat you like a special visitor. Tidbit: Southern Living magazine picked Bel-Loc (named after the Beltway and Loch Raven Boulevard) as one of its favorite diners in 2009, including a recipe for rice pudding from owner Bill Doxanas. A peek at the menu: That rice pudding, always a crowd pleaser, is still available—with whipped cream, as one waitress recently suggested. Of course, there are the usual eggs, pancakes, and sandwiches with heartier fare like grilled steer liver with onions and gravy and two grilled pork chops. There are also some Italian dishes and a kids’ menu. The surrounds: This is no retro diner. It’s the real deal. Bel-Loc bills itself as “A Baltimore Landmark since 1964.” The turquoise booths, some with jukeboxes, may have been updated, but the décor is still a soothing throwback. Don’t miss: The three-decker sandwiches. We are particularly fond of the turkey club with bacon, a pile of chips, and a slice of pickle. Who goes there: Retirees, families, couples, and, during the week, office workers. You may also see former Baltimore Colts players Bruce Laird and Marty Domres there, too. Behind the scenes: Doxanas is a hands-on owner of the business that was started by his dad. He is now the “cook, chief bottle washer. It’s just me,” he says with a laugh. “We don’t try to be fancy. We serve quality food at reasonable prices with good service.” For many of the waitresses, it’s a family tradition to work there, from grandmothers to mothers and now daughters, he says.

Boulevard Diner

1660 Merritt Blvd., Dundalk, 410-285-8660.

Why we come here: It’s open 24 hours on Friday and Saturday, which is perfect for late-night weekend munchies. Tidbit: The retro, family-owned diner, which opened in 2001, replaced The House of Neptune, a popular Dundalk restaurant, and still serves some of its dishes like the crab cakes, fried seafood, and Neptune sub with fried shrimp. A peek at the menu: The eight-page booklet runs the gamut, from the usual diner fare like hot open-faced roast-beef sandwiches and french fries with gravy and cheese to numerous Mediterranean offerings like Yia’s Yia’s (grandma’s) “famous” stuffed grape leaves. The surrounds: Chrome rules. The exterior, with its silver and turquoise hues, looks like it just stepped out of the last century. Inside, booths with tableside jukeboxes and a long counter with stools continue the theme. Don’t miss: The Boulevard Cuban—really, in Dundalk—is a worthy version of the sandwich that originated in Cuba, with tender pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, mayo, and mustard on a flattened, grilled sub roll. Who goes there: Besides local residents, including many retirees, it’s a haven for elected officials like state Delegate John “Johnny O” Olszewski Jr. and Peter Franchot, state comptroller. Behind the scenes: The idea to put a diner on the prominent corner of Merritt Boulevard and Holabird Avenue evolved after family friends from New York visited and suggested that type of venue for the property, says general manager Marc Tsakiris, who runs the family’s diner. “My grandfather asked me if I wanted a diner,” he says. “And I was interested.”

Broadway Diner

6501 Eastern Ave., 410-631-5666.

Why we come here: All the desserts are made on the premises. Don’t miss the cinnamony apple pie à la mode. It’s better than mom’s. (Sorry, Mom.) Tidbit: If you missed Broadway Diner’s appearance on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, you can watch it on the diner’s website, broadwaydiner1.com. A peek at the menu: This is a page-turner with overwhelming options for breakfast (The Lumberjack, three pancakes with ham, bacon, sausage, and two eggs), lunch (half-pound Reuben pastrami burger with fries), and dinner (roast turkey with apple stuffing). Actually, there are lots of different cuisines, including—natch—Greek. The surrounds: It glistens with chrome, Formica tables, aqua-colored booths, and jukeboxes. There’s lots of parking—great for a downtown restaurant. Don’t miss: The combination Greek platter, a yummy plateful of pastitsio, moussaka, and spinach pie with a small Greek salad. Who goes there: You see a variety of customers, including soldiers in uniform and families with kids. After Diners host Guy Fieri filmed the TV episode, he came back a couple of weeks later on his own with family and friends, says owner George Kavourakis. Behind the scenes: Kavourakis has a lot of history in the business, having been involved in diners in upstate New York, Connecticut, and Rockville. Eight years ago, the Eastern Avenue property became available, and he had the diner built from scratch there. “I figured it was good for a diner because of its location near the highway 95,” he says.

Double T Diner

eight locations, including 6300 Baltimore National Pk., Catonsville, 410-744-4151.

Why we come here: It’s an original, feeding hordes of visitors since 1959. The diner has expanded to seven other locations throughout the state, but we still like to come to this one. Tidbit: The diner got its name from the first names of the original owners Thomas Doxanas and his partner Tony Parradas—hence, the Double T. A peek at the menu: The breakfast items merit their own menu with a dizzying selection of eggs, waffles, and sides like a T-bone steak for $13.50 and scrapple for $2.40. The rest of the menu at this 24-hour diner includes an array of reliable staples like grilled cheese, meatloaf, and Greek specialties. The tempting desserts are homemade. The surrounds: The bustling restaurant, heavy on Formica and shiny surfaces, is larger than it looks from the outside with several dining rooms and a counter with TVs, where customers like to linger. Don’t miss: The fresh spinach, mushroom, and tomato omelet. Substitute a bowl of fresh fruit for the potatoes with your meal, and you’ll have a few extra calories to splurge on the “Bunnery” selection of Danish pastries, apple turnovers, and other sweet breads. Who goes there: At this busy Route 40 landmark, there’s an international clientele, including office workers, retirees, families, and couples. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and other players often stop by after games, says co-owner Tom Korologos. Flacco signs autographs, “which is nice for us,” he says. Behind the scenes: All eight diners are now run by brothers John, Tom, and Louie Korologos. When asked if there were any more diners in the works, Tom Korologos promptly answered, “No more.” He credits the diner’s success to serving breakfast 24 hours and to having a varied menu with reasonable prices. “You can eat from $10 to $20,” he says.

G & A Restaurant

3802 Eastern Avenue, 410-276-9422.

Why we come here: G & A, in the heart of Highlandtown, serves delicious, classic hot dogs at down-home prices. A peek at the menu: Besides its signature $2 Coney Island hot dog (chili sauce, diced onions, and yellow mustard), the diner is also known for its cheeseburger sliders and gravy fries. The menu has typical diner offerings like all-day breakfast, gyros, pasta dishes, fish and chips, and milkshakes. A plus is that all of the omelets can be made into breakfast wraps upon request. The surrounds: This narrow spot on Eastern Avenue evokes the classic, ’50s diner feel with sea-foam green Formica tables, counters lined with pie trays, and prints of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe on the walls. A nice touch is the wall of UTZ chips that greets customers at the door. Don’t miss: G & A’s signature smooth and zesty chili sauce, which can be found on its hot dogs, burgers, and omelets. Who goes there: Highlandtown locals and blue-collar families. Behind the scenes: G & A was started as a hot-dog stand in 1927 by Greek immigrant Gregory Diacumacos. Now, his great nephew Andy Farantos runs the place and can be found demonstrating his signature move: lining up a dozen hot dogs on his arm and dressing them with the works.

Jimmy’s

801 S. Broadway, 410-327-3273.

Why we come here: Diners don’t come more convenient than smack dab in the middle of Fells Point, and when they’ve got quick, cheap, yummy food—and beer—served with unpretentious charm, we’re in. Tidbit: The late William Donald Schaefer, former city mayor and state governor, ate breakfast at Jimmy’s almost every day for 20 years, ordering what came to be known as the “Schaefer Special”: scrambled eggs, home fries, and rye toast, with a cup of tea. A peek at the menu: Get your eggs Benedict elsewhere. Jimmy’s menu is stacked with traditional variations on omelets, pancakes, sandwiches, burgers, salads, and platters like liver and onions and pork chops, all at ridiculously low prices. Where else in Fells Point—or anywhere else—can you get a short stack of pancakes for $3.89 or a bowl of chili for $3.35? The fanciest—and, often, tastiest—items available are Greek favorites like the spinach pie and the Greek burger, a wonderfully seasoned patty topped with a mound of feta cheese on a garlic-toasted bun. The surrounds: The bare-bones greasy spoon features a counter where diners get a view of the grill or tightly packed Formica tables outfitted with paper placemats. The walls are lightly dotted with ephemera, including a signed portrait of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and a picture of owner Jimmy Filipidis with Bill Cosby outside the restaurant. Don’t miss: The chance to down a 16-ounce draft of Yeungling or Budweiser for $2.30 at 5 a.m. Who goes there: Once upon a time, it was mostly blue-collar folks coming in before, after, or on breaks from work, but Jimmy’s has become a local institution, so the locals now share lunch-counter space with tourists and families from the ’burbs. Behind the scenes: Jimmy Filipidis, an immigrant from Greece, opened Jimmy’s in 1944 as a candy store. His son Nick bought the place from his dad in 1981, even though Jimmy offered to give it to him—“I never would’ve thought it was mine [that way],” Nick has said—and now runs the place with his own son, Jimmy.

Lost in the 50’s Diner

5512 Harford Rd., 410-254-1639.

Why we come here: The low-key, family-run diner in the Hamilton business district offers classic renditions of American breakfast and lunch staples. Tidbit: Lost in the 50’s is the brainchild of husband-and-wife team William Bosques and Sylvia “Angelica” Gracia. Their two teenage daughters help out in the restaurant on weekends. A peek at the menu: Only open for breakfast and lunch, the diner doesn’t mess around with the tried and true: eggs, pancakes, hamburgers, hot dogs, club sandwiches, and fries are all given traditional preparations. There’s also a Lil’ Bopper menu with chicken tenders, PB&J, and grilled cheese. The surrounds: This is classic Americana right down to the Formica-topped, chrome-edged tables and red vinyl booths. There are even individual—though, sadly, not working—jukeboxes in each booth. Don’t miss: Framed black-and-white photographs of the neighborhood from the 1950s add a personalized touch to the décor. Or, strike a pose with the Elvis Presley cardboard cutout near the bathrooms. Who goes there: Gracia says most patrons are older folks from the neighborhood who actually remember the ’50s and enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and oldies played on the sound system. “They sit here, and there’s no rush,” she says. “We’re not one of those places where we hurry people out.” Behind the scenes: Though it seems like the diner has always been there, it’s actually only three years old. It used to be a restaurant called The Golden Key, which offered a similarly traditional American menu. The grand opening was the day of Obama’s inauguration and the family stayed up until 4 a.m. trying to get everything ready. If Gracia has her way, more tweaks are forthcoming. She doesn’t like the fact that the individual jukeboxes don’t work and says they may rewire each one or connect them all to a central retro jukebox, like the one she found in the basement of the building.

Nautilus

two locations, including 2047 York Rd., Timonium, 410-561-9236.

Why we come here: It’s open 24 hours; the menu is extensive; and the service is speedy. There’s plenty of parking, too. Tidbit: The waitresses, dressed in functional black and white, aren’t the gum-chewing, tough types you see in the movies. They’re young, attentive, and efficient. A peek at the menu: Breakfast is offered all day long. You can behave yourself with cereal and fruit, but the giant omelets, challah-bread French toast, stacks of pancakes, and Belgian waffles merit your attention. The rest of the list goes on and on: snacks like stuffed grape leaves and French fries, paninis, sandwich melts, pastas, and big-helping entrees including a crab cake, calf’s liver, filet of sole francaise, moussaka, and meatloaf. The surrounds: Lots of chrome with salmon-colored accents, blue-and-ivory booths (some of which have tableside jukeboxes), a dining counter, and a prominent dessert case filled with luscious goodies. A seascape mural in the back of the dining room adds extra cheer. Don’t miss: The breakfast specials from 6-11 a.m. Monday-Friday, excluding holidays. We like the two eggs (scrambled, fried, or poached), potatoes, toast, meat (bacon, ham, sausage, or scrapple), juice, and coffee or tea for $8.39. Who goes there: Suburbanites, with or without families. Regular customers include Cal Ripken Jr., former Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley, and WBAL-TV’s Deborah Weiner. Behind the scenes: General manager Ted Efstathiou and his partners brought their New York diner experience to Timonium because “there were not many restaurants in the area serving breakfast,” he said. They modeled their 11-year-old diner after diners of the ’60s.

The New Wyman Park Restaurant

138 W. 25th St., 410-235-5100.

Why we come here: To wolf down one of the classic quarter-cut club sandwiches and soak up the ambiance of a true neighborhood diner. Tidbit: The secret to the turkey club is the turkey itself, which is roasted in-house. A peek at the menu: Mostly the standard assortment of diner fare, including eggs, pancakes (still endearingly called “hot cakes”), sandwiches, subs, salads, and platters. There are about two dozen “dinner platters”—which is somewhat odd, since the place closes at 3 p.m. on weekdays and 4 p.m. on Saturdays (closed on Sundays)—including old-school charmers like salmon cakes, baked ham, and hot beef, each served with vegetables. (Fear not, green-veggie phobes: mashed potatoes, French fries, baked beans, coleslaw, and applesauce are options.) The surrounds: The warm, narrow space features wood panels and generic artwork, all of which seem to date from a rash redecorating frenzy in 1989. A posted sign alerts solo diners that they are required to sit at the counter during prime lunch hours, leaving the 10 or so booths open for larger parties. Don’t miss: Wyman Park excels at diner favorites like the B.L.T., rice pudding, and crispy fries served with a side of thick brown gravy. Who goes there: It’s largely the domain of a diverse cast of locals and long-time regulars, along with the occasional Hopkins student and, sometimes, John Waters. Behind the scenes: Owner Spiro Conits bought the diner, which dates to the 1940s, in 1989 and added “New” to the name. He hasn’t changed much else, but, among local merchants, he has become a vocal supporter of the proposed shopping center, to be anchored by Wal-Mart and Lowe’s, that developers want to build across the street at the site of Anderson Automotive.

Papermoon Diner

227 W. 29th St., 410-889-4444.

Why we come here: For many, the Papermoon is a Baltimore institution on par with Camden Yards or the Washington Monument. With its Technicolor oddness and everything-including-the-kitchen-sink décor, it represents Baltimore’s kooky streak. Also, the milkshakes are really, really good. Tidbit: The almost supernaturally delicious milkshakes are made with regular old Breyers ice cream. Go figure. A peek at the menu: Open up the laminated menu, bound between covers of bizarre reference books, and you’ll find pages of diner standards and comfort-food favorites with ironic wit and foodie flair. Try, for instance, the Green Eggs and Hen, an omelet with grilled chicken breast, spinach, and melted cheddar cheese or the Hella Portobella sandwich featuring grilled portobella mushroom, mozzarella, spinach, tomato, and vinaigrette on toasted sunflower bread. There are also plentiful options for vegetarians and vegans. The surrounds: Papermoon embraces the more-is-more approach to decorating with every available surface—even the blades of the ceiling fans—covered with toys, collectibles, tchotkes, buttons, furniture, baskets, and retro artwork. Don’t Miss: The epic PEZ dispenser collection in the entryway vestibule includes hundreds of the plastic collectibles representing franchises from Looney Tunes to Star Wars. Who goes there: Everyone, but especially Hopkins students and twenty- and thirtysomethings from nearby Hampden, Remington, and Charles Village. Behind the scenes: For most of Papermoon’s 18-year history, it was a 24-7 operation. The recession put a stop to that in 2009, but it’s still a gathering spot for night owls. Hours are 7 a.m.-midnight. Sunday through Thursday and 7 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

Sip & Bite Restaurant

2200 Boston St., 410-675-7077.

Why we come here: The diner is open 24 hours every day except Tuesday and is centrally located between two nightlife hotspots, Fells Point and Canton. A peek at the menu: Breakfast is served all day, and we love the diner’s rotating omelet of the day and crispy hash browns. But you can’t count out Sip & Bite’s Greek influence with its hearty gyro platters, Greek-style meatloaf, and flaky spanakopita. The crab cake, six ounces of jumbo lump with a slight mayo zing, is another big draw. The surrounds: Sip & Bite recently underwent major remodeling, apparent in the pop-art-like graphics on the wall and rebuffed leather booths. But the old stalwart’s charm can still be seen in the narrow row-house feel, the counter seating, and refrigerated pie cases. Don’t miss: The late-night scene. Sip & Bite is arguably the most entertaining place to be in the city around 3 a.m. Not only can you get a delicious (and necessary) French toast meal for $6, but the inebriated people-watching can’t be beat. Who goes there: Young urbanites late at night and blue-collar workers at the counter in the morning. Famous customers have included George Clooney, Michael Phelps, and Mario. Behind the scenes: Sip & Bite is run by third-generation owners Tony and Sofia Vasiliades. The diner will appear on an episode of Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives this spring, and it will soon start shipping its popular crab cakes around the country.

Towson Diner

718 York Rd., Towson, 410-321-0407.

Why we come here: Any time, day or night, you can come and get friendly service and reliably good food in enormous portions.Tidbit: We especially like the old-school Art-Deco design and tableside jukeboxes, which stock everything from Frankie Valli to Bob Marley. A peek at the menu: At nine choice-packed pages, a peek will hardly do it justice. The breakfast section alone—offered 24 hours, of course—could supply a year of unique Sunday brunches, including the gigantic omelets, fluffy pancakes, and scrapple variations. Beyond that, the Greek specialties, including the gyro platter and Greek salad—complete with stuffed grape leaves and anchovies—are not to be missed. The hot entrees, particularly mainstays like baked meatloaf and the hot open-faced turkey sandwich, are reliably delicious and filling. The surrounds: Classic chrome-filled retro diner with jukebox-befitted booths and lots of additional tables, a bar at the back, and a dessert display guaranteed to make you re-think just how full you are. Don’t miss: Polly, the exceedingly friendly overnight waitress, who has become a hit with Towson University students looking for laughs along with their late-night snacks. Who goes there: For lunch, local businesspeople; for dinner and weekend brunch, families with or without kids and hungover students; all night long: students. Behind the scenes: Originally built in 1954, the Kourtsounis family bought the diner in 1993, gave it a serious renovation, and expanded the menu. Some locals initially grumbled about an increase in prices, but pretty much everyone agrees the diner is an institution these days.

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