FREDERICK -- In the gastronomical galaxy of trendy eateries in downtown Frederick, one astral body has shone steadily for 80 years -- the White Star.
In a small North Market Street storefront in the Castle Building, the hot dogs that have made the White Star a legend are cooked on a grill near the front window, with the secret recipe that brings back devoted eaters.
Larry Bowman of Waverly, Tenn., left Frederick seven years ago, but whenever he comes back to town, a stop at the White Star for hot dogs is a must, he said.
"I get a real craving for these when I am in Tennessee," he said after finishing off a White Star hot dog smothered with onions. "I don't care where you go, you can't get any hot dogs like this anyplace else."
The current keepers of the White Star flame are Thomas and PatriciaHarding, managers of the North Market Street White Star, which has been open since 1911, and its newer counterpart, the White Star restaurant opened 21 years ago in the northwest part of the city, at Seventh and Bentz streets.
The North Market Street White Star has the atmosphere of slower times, with an old-style counter, stools and modest tables and chairs. The walls are decorated with old photos of the city and two of its most famous citizens, Francis Scott Key and Barbara Fritchie.
The space from the floor to the ceiling -- about 20 feet -- is farther than the width of the restaurant.
The menu, which has not changed in 30 years, is posted on the wall behind the counter.
Anna Mae Wiles has been serving items on that menu for 26 years. Tawn Stup, a regular customer, called her a "doll baby," and Mrs. Wiles said the restaurant is a friendly place.
"We get a lot of people that come in here every day and we know what they want," she said. "We try to have a few laughs with them."
Mrs. Harding has been working 29 years at the White Star, where she met her husband Thomas, son of owners Charles and Nettie Cosgrove. She has taken pleasure in seeing such a simple operation, with such a simple product, gain such a loyal following.
"We've had people buy them for their friends and send them Federal Express," she said. "They put them in coolers or dry ice. One guy took them overseas with him. We have people come from all over for them. They don't forget us."
Mr. Bowman illustrated that devotion when he asked for four hot dogs to go, to bring back to his two children in Tennessee later that day. "They told me not to come back without them," he said, referring to the White Star hot dogs.
While the atmosphere is quaint, it's the taste that smothers the senses which has brought the White Star its fame.
"It's a secret recipe that was started by the original owner, Theodore Vargas, who passed it on to the Cosgroves when they bought the restaurant in 1958," Mrs. Harding said.
Other touches are specially baked rolls and fresh onions ground up at the restaurant, she said. Hot dogs at the North Market Street restaurant cost $1.40, and the ones at the other restaurant are $1.50.
There are a few quirks that might throw hot dog lovers, such as no relish and no sauerkraut.
"These are the Texas-style franks, with chili and onions," she said. "If someone wants sauerkraut or relish, we feel they can get them elsewhere."
That kind of confidence comes with a business that has fought mouth to mouth with the restaurants that have come to the city over the years. It's a competitive atmosphere, but the White Star has stood the test of time.
Mr. Cosgrove passed away in 1976, she said.
Mrs. Harding and her husband manage the restaurants for his mother and have hopes to expand it beyond the two restaurants. "We have a lot of people waiting for franchises," she said. Those plans are nearly finalized, she said.
But the North Market Street White Star will probably always be the anchor in any White Star chain. For people like Michael Stup, director of the Weinberg Center for the Arts, it has a culinary attraction that goes to the heart as well as the stomach.
"A White Star hot dog, a carton of chocolate milk and a package of cheese crackers on certain days of the year deserves a special place in heaven," he said.