Nostalgia Is New Diner's Daily Special

September 18, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

Barry, Boogie, Chip and the other "Diner Guys" would feel right at home at "Mr. D's," slurping Cokes and chomping french fries.

Gleaming stainless steel panels, glowing neon signs and lots of Formica welcome the world to Baltimore's newest entry in the renaissance of the American diner.

The diner sits, perhaps appropriately, on Eastern Avenue at the Back River Bridge -- the Gateway to Essex.

Push open the glass-paneled door and step back to the 1950s when diners dotted highways nationwide and fast food meant slabs of meatloaf or liver and onions with sides of mashed potatoes awash in thick gravy, followed by huge slices of apple pie washed down with steaming hot coffee or thick, real milkshakes.

Diners mean "down-home food and a friendly atmosphere. Good food at reasonable prices and good service. That's what people want," said Randy Garbin, of Watertown, Mass., publisher of Roadside, a 3-year-old quarterly newsletter dedicated to "getting more people back to diners."

Michael DeFontes, 38, "Mr. D's" operator, agrees.

"It's a back-to-the-roots kind of thing, a clean place with good food where you don't have to go into your savings account to take the family to dinner," he said.

The pink-and-blue color scheme on booth seats and tables carries through in the neon tubes and signs -- burgers, shakes, grill -- that reflect off the mirrors and polished metal panels on walls and ceiling.

Corny signs proclaim, "If the music is too loud, you're too old;" "If there's a will, I want to be in it;" and "The customer is usually right."

The back wall is a nostalgia trip. Rows of framed magazine covers -- Look, Life, The Saturday Evening Post -- have photographs of '40s, '50s and '60s celebrities, including Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, Arthur Godfrey, Frank Sinatra, Ingrid Bergman and President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy and their baby son, John Jr.

The only thing missing is a glorious Wurlitzer jukebox stocked with 45s. "Mr. D's" will have the music of the '50s and '60s, but it will be piped in.

The restaurant's inspiration lies in the Northwest Baltimore of the early 1950s, when the "Diner Guys," teen-agers then, hung out at the old Hilltop Diner on Reisterstown Road.

Many have gone on to big things, including movie director Barry Levinson; clothing and sports mogul Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass and health professional Chip Silverman, who recorded their adventures in a book Mr. Levinson turned into a popular film.

Mr. DeFontes said his dad, Wayne, 56 and retired, lived in Forest Park and knew the guys at the Hilltop. In fact, Mr. DeFontes has invited Mr. Silverman to the formal opening Oct. 1.

When Wayne DeFontes bought the land for his Riverview Nursing Center, now across the street, it included the Hollywood Park site, where from 1895 to 1921 a waterfront amusement park stood at the end of a trolley line from Baltimore. Later, a bar called Hollywood Park flourished there and attracted rock 'n' rollers like Chubby Checker and Fats Domino.

Michael DeFontes said that when he took over the nursing-home operation, "My father kept telling me, 'Do something with that land.' "

They decided that Essex could be fertile ground for a 1950s theme diner.

"People in Essex love the '50s. They love nostalgia. You wouldn't believe the number of classic cars from that time that go up and down this road," said Michael DeFontes.

The $1 million cost estimates they first got from manufacturers almost scuttled the plans.

"That was an outrageous amount; we didn't want to invest a million dollars in a business where we had limited experience. We decided to build a chicken and ribs place instead, a glorified chicken shack," said Mr. DeFontes.

However, when he told a restaurateur friend his problem, the man gave him the name of Bill Starcevic, a diner maker in Florida. Mr. DeFontes visited the plant and the two men clicked. Both had been race-car drivers in Florida but had never met. Once Mr. DeFontes saw a diner under construction, they closed the deal on a handshake.

The 65-foot-by-28-foot modular diner cost about $200,000 and took about five weeks to build and haul to the Eastern Avenue foundation. Although the formal opening isn't for another month and prospective employees are being interviewed, would-be customers are already knocking on the door, said manager Christine Botta.

Diners like "Mr. D's" are making a comeback and are even being installed in posh shopping malls, such as the Silver Diner at Towson Town Plaza, said Mr. Starcevic. The new diners look like the originals, but are different internally because they must meet strict new health, building and safety codes. Although some old diners have been renovated, the new laws can make such a project prohibitively expensive, said Mr. Starcevic.

"It just wouldn't pay because you'd spend $250,000 or more to re-do a 25- or 30-seat diner. Our diners are more functional than the old ones and they look the same," he said.

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