When Angelo Nopulos left his Alpha Lunch restaurant in downtown Catonsville to start a new diner on U.S. 40 back in 1959, friends said, "What are you going to do up in the woods?"
The forest and the scampering deer that patrons used to see from the big glass windows of the Double T Diner at U.S. 40 and Rolling Road have given way to shopping centers and gasoline stations. And now even the Double T is changing, but in ways that the present owners believe keep faith with its classic lines of chrome and glass.
The boxed, brightly lighted diner that opened in 1959 "was the latest then," says Nopulos, 76, who sold the place five years ago, but still visits often.
Three brothers, John, Tom and Louis Korologos, who bought the Double T from him, have almost completed an extensive renovation -- using what is now the latest in materials and design. "You have to go along with updating," says Tom Korologos, 38.
The Korologos brothers built an addition three years ago, more than doubling the previous seating capacity of 126. They chopped away half a hill in back to create more parking and supplemented the menu with several sauteed entrees. That entire project cost $150,000.
Their current project is even more ambitious, carrying with it a $350,000 price tag.
In recent months, the Korologoses have covered the brown terrazzo floor with pinkish tiles, dropped tile over the Formica ceiling, installed marble around the dining booth windows and granite near the counters, among many other changes. Outside, straight chrome and glass windows are being replaced with windows that slant outward, joining mirrored panels that customers can stare into for a quick adjustment of the necktie or the hairstyle before venturing inside.
The neon roof sign was replaced last week by a brand new, $25,000 neon banner, larger than the original and with a more elegant script.
The renovation has gone forward one section at a time without closing the diner to customers. The Double T still needs a new ceiling duct here, a refrigeration case there, but the transformation should be complete by the end of next month, Korologos says.
But the character of the diner as a homey, 24-hour place with atmosphere along a strip dotted with malls and fast-food joints will continue. The same New Rochelle, N.Y., company that built the Double T 32 years ago is handling the renovation.
Tom Baum, a regular customer since his parents brought him as a child, says "I was apprehensive" when he first saw the plans for changing the diner.
Baum still eats most of his breakfasts and at least one dinner each week at the diner. But as the new tiles and mirrors and Art Deco lamps appeared within the familiar interior, he says, "it was faithful to what the Double T is."
The same chef and baker still make the standard American diner fare, along with a few Greek selections, that the Double T has always offered. But the menu is fatter now. And Baum, now a middle-age traveling account representative for a photo film company, says that with the addition of elegance, "I wouldn't hesitate to bring a customer here for dinner."
The Korologos brothers sold their previous diner in Rockland County, N.Y., and came to Baltimore when their friend, the diner designer in New Rochelle, told them the Double T was for sale.
"I like this place better," says Tom Korologos. "Customers are nice, the pressure is less." Compared with Rockland County, his niche on U.S. 40 is "slow motion-like," he says, though he and his brother John could talk about their business only in brief spurts between duties around the diner and appointments elsewhere.
One of the three brothers is always on hand throughout the Double T's round-the-clock schedule, supervising a staff that includes many of their in-laws and cousins. Often one brother is in the family's native Greece, visiting relatives.
The brothers say the basic diner ambience is still there. Many of the old regular customers, including Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who was there at least once a week when he was mayor of Baltimore, continue to drop in. After midnight, many of the regulars who appeared for lunch still stop in for a bite after a night on the town. It becomes a habit.
To keep that tradition going, the Korologos brothers wanted their place to stand out even more in the neon glare surrounding its hilltop perch, and they believe the new look does that. Tom says, "It's the best view of scenery you can get from Rolling Road."