A restaurant that calls itself a diner

October 30, 1997|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Most diners serve milkshakes. Only a few, like Ralphie's Diner, also serve Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay.

But then Ralphie's is not a true diner. It doesn't have wisecracking veteran waitresses or specials that include everything from a cup of soup to a piece of pie. It does have a nursery upstairs for crying babies, a $2 extra-plate charge and friendly, competent service.

Face the facts: Ralphie's is a restaurant masquerading as a diner, all dressed up with stainless steel and cool neon clocks. In 1989, owner Hersh Pachino, formerly of Hersh's Orchard Inn, opened the restaurant on the first floor of a tall glass office building on Deereco Road in Timonium.

Inside, at one of the cherry-wood booths lining the restaurant's -- center isle, we felt as if we were sitting in a streamlined dining car from the 1930s. Rectangular wall sconces and frosted-glass partitions gave the room a sophisticated edge. Kids might prefer the '50s feel of the counter, which is cut off from view of the main dining areas.

The menu said the split pea soup was a specialty, and it was. A smooth puree with bits of carrots still visible, it had an unexpected brightness, as if it had been flavored with lemon and vegetables instead of a smoky ham bone.

There were no surprises when it came to the potato skins, filled with melted Cheddar and crisp bacon. They were just what we expected, and just what we've had many times before. We thought we'd try the onion rings, another diner favorite, but our server talked us into the "bloomin' onion," an appetizer that gained popularity at the Outback Steakhouse chain. Scored, breaded and fried, the onion blossoms into a flower shape. We pulled off the petals to dunk in creamy horseradish sauce. It's good to order for a large group, or if you want to eat twice as much fried food as you planned.

Blue plate specials are the stuff of which diners are made. At Ralphie's, the hot turkey special was actually an open-faced turkey sandwich on white bread with bland gravy, the palest we'd ever seen. The meat was moist and carved straight from the bird. But the mashed potatoes didn't taste as though they were made from scratch. No lumps, and no homemade flavor.

The presentation of the meatloaf special took the cake. Actually, it looked like cake -- a giant square of carrot cake, with mashed potatoes subbing for icing. The meatloaf was terrific, moist and studded with onions. Too bad it was sitting in a puddle of canned-tasting gravy. No vegetable other than potatoes came with our dinners, so we ordered some fresh green beans on the side.

French fries don't come with burgers, either, just chips and a pickle. This was a fine-tasting burger, hand-packed, grilled to order and sitting on an egg-enriched roll. As generations of teen-agers will attest, burgers go great with a chocolate milkshake. We loved ours, all thick and frothy in its steel shaker.

From the list of entrees, we tried the seafood linguine, tossed in a buttery garlic sauce. The seafood was cooked perfectly, from jumbo sea scallops and shrimp to mussels on the half shell.

But what we liked best about our meal wasn't made by the staff: smooth peanut-butter pie with silky, not-too-sweet flavor; banana creme pie as light as whipped cream; and a layered mousse tart that melted on the tongue like the proverbial "buttah."

Ralphie's Diner

9690 Deereco Road, Timonium

410-252-3990

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.

Prices: Appetizers, $1.95-$8.95; entrees, $3.95-$16.95

Pub Date: 10/30/97

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