What can I getcha, hon?
Sooner or later, everyone comes into a diner: high-school kids after a dance, families seeking solace and hash browns after a trying night at the hospital, executives getting ready for another day at the office, construction workers grabbing a burger for lunch . . . the diner is where we all eventually wind up for some speedy nourishment. >> And if ever there was a spot for diners, it’s here. Baltimore is a diner town—we even have the movie to prove it. Some of our favorite foods—fried crab-cake sandwiches, french fries with gravy, and the marvelous mystery that is scrapple—are also classic diner fare. >> So we decided to find out what 24 hours look like from the booths of our local diners. We spent two hours each (that being enough time to see a rush come and go) in some of the best greasy spoons we could find. We took notes, tested our servers’ patience, and drank a whole lot of coffee. Our discovery: Like we said, everyone eventually comes into a diner, and they all get called “Honey.”
Midnight – 2 a.m.: Papermoon Diner
Here is the secret behind Papermoon’s success: Despite its hipster cred—pierced and dreadlocked waitstaff, slightly shady neighborhood, all manner of kitsch on the walls—this is one smoothly run operation. It has equal appeal to the post-club scenester and the suburban family looking for some non-threatening urban color.
At midnight on a Friday night, two things greet us at the front door: A buff security guard and a five-minute wait for a table. (Hey, it could be worse: We once had a 20-minute wait at 2 a.m. on a Saturday.) Once seated in the non-smoking room, we survey the famous kitsch (old fans, bicycle wheels, Barbie dolls, toy airplanes) and then the crowd: At this hour, it’s mostly young people, racially diverse, shaggily haired, and messily clad (except for a gorgeous Eurotrash couple who seem to have stumbled in from a German beer commercial), chowing down on burgers, quesadillas, milkshakes, and omelets. One girl is applying lipstick to a boy at her table; another table discusses the Ravens’ quarterback situation.
We order two dishes: Papermoon’s patented meatloaf, served with a heaping portion of mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy, and a surprisingly sophisticated penne pasta tossed with olives, tomatoes, onions, and capers. Each is about $10.
No meal at Papermoon would be complete without a creamy, whipped-cream-and-sprinkle-kissed milkshake. We drink ours up and waddle to the cash register, feeling well-fed, satiated, and just that much cooler—which, when you think about it, is what the Papermoon is all about.
2 a.m. – 4 a.m.: Sip and Bite Diner
Now is when bleary lovers of the nightlife get to see each other for the first time under the harsh, uncompromising glare of the Sip and Bite’s fluorescent lights. Now is when young women in stunning black dresses ruin their lipstick on Western omelets. Now is when baseball-capped frat boys from the Green Turtle and tattooed hipsters from Fletcher’s sit at adjoining tables, united only in their desire to both stave off the coming hangover and keep the evening going for as long as possible. Now, in short, is the hour that separates the amateur partiers from the pros.
We arrive slightly before 2 a.m., just in time to snag the last booth. Quickly, a line stretches out the door. One young man outside paws wistfully at the window, eyeing our side of toast. We cruelly let it sit there, mocking him. Someone who knows no better orders the prefab fries; veterans know that a side of onion rings, while not exactly bountiful, is the better taste choice. The scrapple is hot and crispy, and while the price of the crab-cake sub has gone up to $7.50 since our last visit, it’s still a bargain.
Our waitress, dressed in short shorts and a Hard Rock Cafe sweatshirt, is unflaggingly cheerful as she half-runs between tables. So is the rest of the staff: When we move to the counter after half our party leaves around 2:45 and explain that we’re just going to camp and drink coffee, the cook at the grill just smiles and says, “Go on and stay all night if you want. We never close.” By 3 a.m., the line is gone; a half-hour later, there are empty tables once again. We leave at our appointed hour, exhausted. The line cook is whistling a jaunty tune.
4 a.m. - 6 a.m.: The Honey Bee Diner
There are six cars in the parking lot as we pull up to The Honey Bee Diner at 4 in the morning—and one-third of them are police cruisers. Two cops lean on their cars chatting, while a couple sits in a booth sharing either a really early breakfast or a really, really late dinner. A couple of older guys who look like regulars perch on stools at the counter. The modern décor and glass-block wall keep the place cozy and not claustrophobic, considering its roughly 150-person capacity. And generally, aside from the sand in our eyes, we don’t feel like it’s an ungodly hour.
The whimsical menu wakes us up a bit with its fun clip art and pardon-the-pun humor—the poultry section is headed “I Like Chicken Tonight.” And the menu is nothing if not comprehensive. Considering we did sleep for a few hours before this shift, a pancake breakfast seems in order. It doesn’t disappoint—though the too-small booth does. Good luck fitting four people in comfortably.
Around 5 a.m., things pick up a bit, with guys in landscaping-company tees dropping by the counter for breakfast before a shift. Everyone seems to know each other and one waitress ribs a guy over his early cuppa. By 5:30, they’re gone again.
6 a.m. – 8 a.m.: Bel-Loc Diner
The sky’s still dark as we drive up to the Bel-Loc, and its huge neon sign glows like a multi-colored beacon of hope (okay, we’re a little desperate for the coffee at this hour of the morning). Inside, hope and caffeine are provided by a smiling and silver-haired waitress. With her requisite white uniform and shoes, she looks like a nurse—a wonderful, bacon-dispensing nurse. Other patients include a couple of solitary businessmen reading the paper, ties carefully slung over their shoulders to avoid stains; a couple of women come for oatmeal and Bible study; and a table of six that grows to eight and, eventually, 12, all of whom are obviously regulars.
But as the sky begins to lighten, the peaceful Bel-Loc fills with customers. More waitresses show up for shift change, just in time to handle the rush. We nurse our coffee and gobble home fries made with whole peeled potatoes; the massive omelet, filled with gooey American cheese, turns out to be more than we could possibly hope to finish. Most customers come and go quickly, on their way to work or school (the number of parents taking their kids out for pre-class pancakes warms our hearts). But our new waitress (who looks remarkably like our old one, except with darker hair) affably lets us hog our table for as long as we like. By the time we leave, the sky is bright, the Bel-Loc is emptying out, and the waitresses are standing in the back getting ready for the lunch rush.
8 a.m. – 10 a.m: Towson Diner
Unitas and Moore; Sanders and Turner; diners and bacon.
They don’t scrimp on the breakfast meat here at the gleaming, chromed Towson Diner, on the piece of York Road that time and progress forgot, just down the road from the traffic circle.
Our breakfast comes with a veritable cord of bacon, five or six pieces, cooked crisp and true, thus answering the eternal question: Is it better to have a few pieces of great bacon, or lots of perfectly fine bacon? (Quantity wins.)
Things are pretty quiet this weekday morning—small clusters of middle-aged men in golf shirts discussing work, a few retirees lingering over grapefruit, even a wife and husband on their way back from the hospital: He’s fresh out of surgery, say his wristband and anesthesia-induced wooziness, and he’s written himself a prescription for bacon.
The hash browns are the shredded type, plain and a crunchy golden-brown, and the scrambled eggs are just moist enough. Lunch and dinner options are truly bountiful, and they bake their pies on premises. Towson Diner is another Greek-owned establishment (if the playful arguing of the elderly owners in their native tongues didn’t give it away, the grape leaves on the menu sure did). We look around the largely green interior—carpeted, with sturdy furniture, and the odd mural on the wall—and help ourselves to another slice of bacon.
10 a.m. – noon: Hollywood Diner
Every diner has its share of colorful characters and history—that’s what makes diners such great landmarks, after all—but it’s safe to say that none matches the heritage of downtown’s Hollywood Diner. It’s earned its name from all the screen time it logged in films like Diner, Tin Men, and Sleepless in Seattle, and the walls are covered with movie posters and memorabilia.
Appropriately, the Hollywood is home to a small, rotating, and colorful cast of regulars. They sit scattered throughout this authentic 1940s-era purpose-built diner, which is stationed at the corner of Saratoga and Hollidays streets (there’s even a small parking lot off of Saratoga). Rhythm and blues and doo-wop songs from the 1950s and ’60s issue constantly from the ceiling’s speakers. So between the music, the people, and the décor, there’s plenty to absorb after you sit in one of the booths or at the counter, and dig into one of their massive breakfasts (the “He-Man” consists of three eggs, potatoes, toast, bacon, ham, sausage, and pancakes). Today, the diner is owned by the city, and is operated by the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development, which hires at-risk young adults and teaches them work skills in a real-world business—which explains why your waitress looks and acts like a high school kid (she is).
noon – 2 p.m.: The Nautilus Diner, 2047 York Road, Timonium, 410-561-8826.
The dessert case is a kind of cruel and unusual punishment for weight-watchers at the Nautilus Diner. It taunts you the moment you enter the door. Luckily, there’s rarely a wait. And not because the Nautilus doesn’t get crowded—it’s almost always filled with people—but because the diner is so large, and the food delivered so quickly, they’re able to usher you in and out with remarkable efficiency.
The Nautilus is an excellent example of a certain kind of 24-hour diner that has page after page of diverse and reasonably well-prepared food (Greek, Italian, omelets, stuffed chicken and fish, lobster tail, et al), a fully-stocked bar (that usually features fancy daiquiris and piña coladas), smartly dressed waitstaff, and a tableside juke box that plays light rock (Michael Bolton, anyone?).
At noon on a weekday, we barely have a chance to drool over the gooey German chocolate cake before we are seated in one of the comfy, mauve-colored booths. The lunch crowd is mostly business people, a few families, a few single diners. Our waiter—bow tie, vest, white dress shirt, natch—comes over immediately and takes our drink order. Once he delivers the drinks, he offers to take our food order, but seeing that we are poring slowly over the nine-page, laminated menu, he retreats. He keeps a close—but not too close—eye on the table, and doesn’t come back until the moment we shut our menus.
We order breakfast food—excellent malted Belgian waffles and feta cheese omelets with crunchy home fries. And even though they are built for speed, Nautilus seems to have no problem with a two-top lingering for two hours during lunch rush.
Coffee report: Three refills of a medium-strong brew.
Diner dialog: “Did you save room for dessert?” our waiter asks. We clearly haven’t, but he respectfully refrains from gasping when we go ahead and order a slice of cherry pie with a scoop of ice cream and a gravity-defying hunk of chocolate cream pie.
2 p.m. - 4 p.m.: The New Ideal Diner
It’s a long trek out to Aberdeen from the city, but we’re not disappointed when we reach our destination. The New Ideal Diner (so named because it replaced an Ideal Diner that once stood in the same location) is the real deal. There’s no self-aware diner memorabilia or postmodern irony about it. It could serve as a set in a ’60s film—you know, just in case anyone ever felt like making a movie set in a 1960s diner—with its worn seats of pale green vinyl and its chipped formica tables.
The sign outside touts the crab cakes. They’re good, though pricey, as far as diners go. Our waitress is pleasant and eager to please, waiting a good 58 seconds between visits to see whether we’ve decided on something yet.
The jukebox is a curious juxtaposition of country music, Kenny G, and volumes 4 through 10 of the Now compilation CDs. Predictably, there’s one patron sporting a Ripken jersey, and the hours and information for the nearby Ripken Museum are posted near the door.
4 p.m. - 6 p.m.: The Star Light Diner, 11929 Reisterstown Road, Reisterstown, 410-833-0096.
The Star Light Diner is a chrome and neon oasis in the middle of an otherwise nondescript Reisterstown strip mall—and, apparently, quite the hotspot for the over-70 set.
At 4 p.m. on a Monday, The Star Light is just starting to see the dinner crowd: An octogenarian slides in slowly on a walker, followed dutifully by her sixtysomething daughter; a cheerful table of seniors (two men and two women: a double date?) peruse their menus; a pair of smartly-dressed African-American women (average age: 85) linger in the doorway.
Although it is mid-September, the diner is incongruously spruced up for Halloween: Plastic pumpkins decorate the room, along with plastic autumn leaves. The Star Light’s permanent décor features diamond-etched, turquoise-blue booths, an empty bakery case (it’s broken, but they expect to have it up and filled with cheesecake and pecan pie in a few days), and framed Life magazine covers. The music, oddly enough, tends toward 1980s New Wave.
There is a separate dining room in the back, but at this early hour, everyone is in the front room, where there is also a small luncheon counter. The menu features meatloaf, shrimp Creole, Greek salads, Reubens, Italian dishes, overstuffed omelets, and three kinds of Tomato Surprise, a hollowed out tomato stuffed with either tuna, chicken, or shrimp salad. (Guess we kinda ruined the surprise there, but we were charmed by the retro novelty.)
We get a burger platter with white bread, fries, and gravy and a deluxe cheeseburger, which comes with fries and some of the best onion rings we’ve had in town. Our waitress is friendly and attentive, with the kind of low-key demeanor that suggests she never gets harried, even during rush hours.
Coffee report: Five refills. Our waitress is still filling our mug even as she brings us the check.
Diner scene: Who says a diner isn’t a special-occasion joint? At about 5 p.m., two youngish women, filled with that “just sprung from work” cheer, take a booth near the counter. One is wearing a pointy hat that reads: Happy Birthday.
6 p.m. – 8 p.m.: The Forest Diner
There’s something mournful about The Forest Diner, due in part to the now-defunct Enchanted Forest playland that sits across the road. The missing neon in its sign’s “o” adds to this forlornness—as does the newspaper clipping, attached to the front door, that bemoans the building of a bright new ersatz diner right next door to this 60-year-old institution. The Forest Diner may yet get the last laugh, however: Its shiny new neighbor has already changed hands once, morphing from its original “Princess Diner” into yet another Double T.
Inside, we sit in the original dining car, carefully done up in gleaming red-and-white tile; a life-size statue of Betty Boop stands at one end. The menu, printed on newsprint, offers the standard array of fried and grilled goods. The Maryland crab soup is old-school, made with plenty of crabmeat and a hearty assortment of vegetables. At what should be dinner rush, our waitress is content to let us maintain a holding pattern at our booth; right around 6:30, a handful of men slide onto stools at the counter. Our waitress—thin, dark-haired, and looking tired on her feet—knows them all by name. They come, they go, and she takes advantage of the chance to sit down and chat about dogs with us. As we get up to leave, she has one table, a family. We’re feeling a little sorry for the Forest, until we hear a guy tell his friend as they enter, “These guys have the best pancakes in town!” All the big glossy signs in the world can’t beat that kind of advertising.
8 p.m. – 10 p.m.: New Towne Diner, 11316 Reisterstown Road, Owings Mills, 410-654-0066.
All diners are good for breakfast; only the best are good for dinner, too. It takes a clever kitchen to be able to handle pancakes and grilled Mahi-Mahi with equal aplomb. Owings Mills’ neon- and chrome-festooned New Towne Diner is a local institution that’s been excelling at both for the last decade, and it’s small surprise that we see both teenagers scarfing down quick cheese steak subs and families lingering over full dinners.
Though it’s long past breakfast time when we slide into one of the red-and-black leatherette booths, we’re thrilled to discover that New Towne’s got four incredibly cheap Monday-through-Thursday, morning-only deals (two eggs, pancakes, and bacon for $2.75!). But it’s dinner time, so we tuck into a cup of crab soup, which frankly is better than some for which we’ve paid twice as much. The many fish specials are all adventurous and tempting, but with the first chill of autumn in the air, we head straight for the hot sandwiches: basic roast beef or turkey (with three kinds of meatloaf available, too), paired with a scoop of mashed potatoes, bathed in hot gravy. The eight-page menu has nearly everything, from steaks and seafood to poultry and pasta and every combination of the four you could want. Best of all, our waitress is fantastic: just attentive enough, familiar with the menu and its quirks, and quick with the refills.
Coffee report: Two refills. They’re big cups, though, and already on the table.
Diner scene: Be warned, ye who suffer from coulrophobia (fear of clowns): There’s an inflated life-sized one out front, ominously lit from within, and the diner’s manager slipped a giant fake clown head over his own at one point in a surreal moment worthy of David Lynch. Then again, the cakes and pies are so fantastic, you’ll forget all about the eerie, eerie clowns.
10 p.m. – midnight: The Double T Diner,
6300 Baltimore National Pike, 410-744-4151,
Standing in stark contrast to the one-off neighborhood diners, the Double T Diner has slowly become a Baltimore empire, with seven locations (four of them open 24 hours). This, the original and flagship site on Route 40 in Catonsville, has undergone at least two major expansions in the past 15 years, though it still maintains much of its classic diner charm: bright colors, lots of chrome and formica, and tableside jukeboxes in the original section of the building
Even at 10 on a Monday night, the parking lot is relatively crowded, but inside, people are spread out through the multiple, large dining rooms. The menu is as hefty as ever, with a wide price range—you’ll find more than a few major entrées at non-dinerish, $20-plus prices. And yet a family-owned spirit still pervades: The host pauses to fastidiously flick away a fleck of dust before seating us, our server couldn’t be friendlier or more accommodating, and other servers smile and ask us how we’re doing when they see us.
The dessert displays are monstrous and mouthwatering—the Waffle Split (found in the “Waffle” section, not the dessert section of the menu) is a winner, with ice cream, bananas, strawberry topping, whipped cream, and a Belgian waffle. The Breakfast Special is a sure bet any time of the day (though it’s not offered on the weekends)—and, having consumed more than a few in the wee hours of the morning after friends’ wedding receptions, we should know. It’s a bit odd to not leave a tip, but the diner’s menu makes it clear that gratuity is added to each bill between 3 and 11 p.m. daily.
The crowd is what you’d expect from one of the most recognized diners in the area: teenaged goths ordering ice cream sundaes, a guy eating a burger alone and reading, couples in booths here and there. Come late on a weekend night, and you’ll see packs of kids fresh from the high-school dance, area college students waxing ironic over waffles, and partiers with the munchies after last call. But prepare for a wait on Sunday mornings—the line usually spills out into the parking lot.
Coffee report: Three refills. We never have to ask for them; they just magically appear.
Diner dialog: Actually, it was hard to hear other tables, since they were broadly spaced throughout the massive restaurant. But we were touched by a dramatic scene between a manager and a server involving a dispute over a check; the server kept repeating, “I’m not stupid! I’m not stupid!” It nearly broke our hearts.