"I love you just the way you are."
-- from an old Billy Joel song
I was happy to see where the modernization of the Double T Diner on U.S. 40 did not include the addition of angel hair pasta with duck a la Piedmontese to the menu. And the home fries are as freshly fried and tasty as ever. The menu hasn't become pricey, either.
This is a good thing. The first time I see anything trendy on the menu, I pay for my coffee and flee. The Double T, one of the Baltimore area's few classic diners, has been glitzed up a bit on the outside, spruced up on the inside.
But it has maintained its classic character. It's still a family joint. The owners do not appear to have passed on the price of this fix-up to the customers, either.
Modernization is great if you like it. I can live with it -- if it is held in check, if it does not change the character of the important places to which we've grown accustomed. I like something new as much as the next guy. But I like old and steady, too.
You've got to have places to come home to -- places that are folksy, familiar and unpretentious. I'm talking about Baltimore's little institutions; the Double T is just one. They can put some neo-deco sizzle in the facade all they want. They can order new neon. I don't mind -- as long as the rice pudding stays up to its usual standard and the waitresses utter an occasional, "What'll ya have, Hon?"
That's important -- especially in a city that has just waved farewell to Memorial Stadium. We need constants. We need to know that, no matter how much this community tries to tiptoe toward the 21st century, a bit of the Old Baltimore prevails. Why do you think we make such a fuss over the Senator Theater?
You each have a place that you appreciate because it hasn't changed much in all the years you've known it. You each have a place -- a real, living, surviving place -- that looks and feels the way it looked at least two decades ago.
Some might know a place that looks as it did when Ike was president.
The new imitations won't do. I went to a place in Baltimore County that called itself a diner. The decor was phony, the food mediocre and overpriced. Give me the Double T! Give me the Bel Loc!
I have arrived at the point where I find myself revisiting Baltimore's little institutions -- just to make sure they didn't change while I had my eyes fixed on some modern distraction.
I dropped by the John Stevens in Fells Point a couple of weeks ago. It still has the bluntly understated brick-and-cinder-block front. But more important, it had an eccentric in the doorway. This is essential to the John Stevens maintaining its character.
As I approached the place, an old man named Frank approached me. He said: "I'm incognito. I'm having a secret meeting with the governor. Make a story for me, willya? I'll pay ya off. The governor, yeah. I got a meeting with him Wednesday. I'm gonna tell him how to save money -- by buying everything in bulk at Giant."
Beautiful. I was instantly reassured.
Same thing happened with a quick trip to Jimmy's around the corner on Broadway. There was a guy at a table by the window eating something hearty, with lots of gravy, while reading the newspaper. I think the same guy was there the last time I walked by.
Attman's, Lombard Street -- it's been there for years and, as far as I know, it has looked exactly the same. The Kibitz Room is still there.
I had the Hungry Man, a massive sandwich advertised on an overhead sign that looks as though it was first hung during the Korean War. Only the prices have changed. Attman's is worn from use, a little ragged around the edges, but it is still a well-lighted place, bustling at lunch hour, with the customers encouraged to help themselves to pickled tomatoes and peppers. That's just the way we like it.
At Pete's Grill in Waverly, I'm happy to report, they haven't reduced the size of the portions, as far as I can see. The ham steak that came with breakfast would have made Bubba Smith grin.
I stopped by the Sip & Bite, 2200 Boston St., just to make sure it did not drop cheese-steak subs for a salad bar. Nothing had changed. The night I was there, a painted lady sprayed herself with perfume from a bottle the size of a Walkman. She was gorgeous. Had John Waters walked in, he would have signed her up for his next movie. The cheese-steak came off the grill hot and greasy, and delicious. Same old, same old -- same old something good.