Venerable, vulnerable Change: Competition is forcing the owner of Ellicott City's landmark Forest Diner to modernize -- despite patrons' fears that its flavor will be lost.

October 27, 1998|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Lou Parlette, 65, remembers when the Forest Diner was surrounded by nothing but trees, and U.S. 40, out front, was the main highway west of Baltimore.

"This was the only thing that was here," she says.

The Ellicott City landmark with the authentic dining car recalls a happier time for Parlette -- when waitresses knew your name, when menus were simpler and when you could help yourself to coffee if things got busy.

But the development that has crept west from Baltimore -- bringing gas stations, fast-food restaurants and warehouse-size stores to this section of Howard County -- is sparking competition and change at the Forest.

Next door, a bigger, flashier diner opened this year and is being converted to the formidable Double-T chain, forcing the Forest to respond with changes of its own. Regulars fear the end of the Forest's quirky charms: customers strolling through the kitchen or concocting sandwiches that aren't on the menu.

"It was just silly," said Herbert Coard, who has been coming to the Forest Diner for 40 years. "To put two diners together, no, I don't think that makes sense. It's like two girls going out with one guy."

The new diner, built as the Princess but changing to a Double-T, is a temple of stainless steel, neon and culinary excess. It offers 17 varieties of omelets, compared to the Forest's four. It has six kinds of pancakes -- silver dollar, banana, chocolate chip, apple cinnamon walnut, blueberry and strawberry -- compared with two varieties at the Forest.

The newcomer also has longer hours than the Forest and twice the capacity.

And it has a new owner: John Korologos, who owns numerous Double-T Diners in the area, including the one on U.S. 40 in Catonsville. He's changing the Princess to fit the successful Double-T formula.

Reacting to the increased competition, Forest owner Will Reich, who took over about six weeks ago, has announced changes. He wants to remodel. Expand the menu. Install a computerized cash register. He even plans to add a bit of neon to the modest wood exterior.

The Forest's previous owner, William Carl Childress, died May 16, shortly after his wife's death. Childress bought the restaurant in 1957.

"The idea is going to be to hold as much of the feeling of the diner as it was," Reich says. "Hold as many memories as you can, but at the same time bring it up to where you can compete with the people next door."

The Forest, known as Gearhart's Diner during the 1940s before Childress renamed it in 1957, has one thing its neighbor does not: loyal customers like Parlette and Coard who have been coming for decades. Many of them don't want the Forest to change. Ever.

Parlette, who has been coming to the Forest "25 years at least," worries that the new menu will be crowded and confusing, that the new waitresses will be too rushed to greet her by name, and that the diner will start serving instant oatmeal instead of the real stuff.

Most of all, she fears the atmosphere won't be the same.

"It's a wholesome place," Parlette says over her dinner. "It's not new and computerized. I think sometimes we need a break from all that. Everything is complicated these days. Nothing is just wholesome and plain."

Maria Ruth, the new manager of the Forest, says some things need to change. Now, waitresses compute the checks -- even the tax -- by hand. That makes for some pretty interesting math, she says.

Ruth admits the changes might be hard for some, like the old-timers who help themselves to coffee, then stroll through the kitchen (with its hardwood floors) to have a cigarette on the back stoop. The new floor plan might not allow for that, she says.

And then there are customers like the man who orders the same thing every time: a sandwich that's not on the menu. The new computerized cash registers, Ruth says, won't have a button for "Steve's special."

"These are little things that you have to iron out," Ruth says. "It's not going to be easy."

For Reich, it's time to attract new customers while pleasing the old. "We're going to have to be creative to the point that when new customers come in, the menu is interesting enough that they will come back a third or a fourth time."

Korologos, for his part, says he never wanted to be the "bad guy" who tries to force the Forest out of business. Had it been up to him, he says, he never would have built a new diner so close to an existing one.

When the Princess went on the market about six weeks ago, Korologos saw a chance to serve the growing Ellicott City area. For the past six weeks, he has been busy turning the Princess into a Double-T: training the staff, ordering menus, trying to get new signs.

"So many little details," he says. "They all come together for the big success."

Reich is ready to start some tweaking of his own. Complaints aside, he plans to close the Forest Diner for two or three weeks in November to do some remodeling.

"It's going to be a difficult thing to do," he says. "But it's something that needs to be done."

Pub Date: 10/27/98

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