Jukebox rocks shakes satisfy

August 01, 1996|By Laura Rottenberg | Laura Rottenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When tabletop jukeboxes devote equal time to Green Day and Fats Domino, you know a restaurant's constituency is varied. Indeed, the bold name, the City Diner, implies that here all walks of life may find a booth and a shake awaiting them.

Diner denizens are Maryland Institute artistes, gay couples from the neighborhood and families from the 'burbs (the staff deals admirably with small children). Patrons come at all hours to this comfortable, year-old Mount Vernon hangout for inexpensive, well-executed diner staples.

A flight of stairs up from street level, the hopping eatery is deceptively large, three rooms deep. Classic red vinyl diner booths and red-and-black art deco detailing is playfully echoed by abstract red paintings and unframed pen-and-ink drawings. The length of the first room is taken up with an old-time counter where regulars plant themselves to nosh and josh with the friendly staff.

Appetizers are run-of-the-mill, and they are pricey compared with the rest of the menu. Onion rings are crisp and not too greasy, but otherwise undistinguished. Garlic bread sticks bring huge, pillowy baguette slices liberally encrusted with garlic salt and served with a bland tomato sauce.

You may want to skip the starters altogether and opt instead for a bargain milkshake aperitif. For $1.99, you get more shake than you can shake a stick at. This is a dinner shake, as opposed to a dessert shake -- not too rich, a little thin, and entirely refreshing.

The menu sports a long list of "specialties," rib-stickers like meatloaf, stuffed cabbage and pork chops. The funny thing is, no one seemed to be eating these on our visits. Everyone was tucking into sandwiches or burgers and sipping a beer. So, when in Rome, as the expression goes, order a Reuben and a bottle of Guinness Stout. (The house red wine proved skippable and was mysteriously served in a champagne flute.)

The Reuben here is a delicious, gooey amalgam of tender corned beef, Swiss cheese and piquant sauerkraut perched on toasted rye bread slathered with sweet Russian dressing. The Philly cheese steak is equally appealing, pairing shaved beef with crisp rounds of sweet onion and green pepper on a soft roll. Both are served with a stack of crisp fries.

The City Diner makes an effort to provide some healthy options. Among four ample salads are a simple green salad and a nice example of the ubiquitous grilled chicken Caesar salad. One quibble, though: In the "Health & Vegetarian" section of the menu, every entree but one is smothered, sprinkled or otherwise infiltrated with cheese. They may be vegetarian, but the verdict's still out on the health part.

As you would expect of a 24-hour restaurant, the City Diner serves breakfast. Its cardinal virtue is that it's served any time. For those of you who don't understand the appeal of eggs at 3 a.m., you must not get out much. After an evening of carousing in Mount Vernon, a meal of flapjacks and scrambled eggs is just the thing to ward off malaise. Whenever you breakfast, though, the City Diner is there with generous and competently made omelets, waffles and hot cakes, served with hearty home fries and a variety of morning meats. Prices are low, coffee is strong, and the jukebox takes on all comers.

Pub Date: 8/01/96

The City Diner

911 N. Charles St.

(410) 547-2489

Hours: Open daily, 24 hours.

Credit cards: Major credit cards.

Prices: appetizers, $2.99-$7.99; entrees, $2.99-$12.99

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