Paul Stamas made diner the special `place to go'

October 26, 1999|By Michael Olesker

THE FAMOUS Hilltop Diner is now Discount Liquors. Directly across Reisterstown Road, the Crest movie theater, with its winding staircase leading to a fancy balcony, is a pawn shop with a check-cashing operation next door. The drug store on the corner has become a liquor store, and the old Mandel-Ballow Delicatessen is a beauty supply center.

And now, I see in my morning newspaper, the man at the heart of so much of this, Paul Stamas, is gone, at 76, of complications from a stroke.

In those Ike and Mamie years when the Hilltop Diner seemed the center of the universe to that first wave migrating from the inner city out to Northwest Baltimore, creating their first meeting places out in middle class suburbia, Stamas owned the Hilltop Diner. More than that, he seemed to spend his life making it work.

"He was always there," attorney Donald Saiontz was remembering yesterday. Saiontz is one of the original "Diner" guys who found pieces of his youth sketched in the Barry Levinson movie that introduced the Hilltop Diner to the country.

"I used to wonder if [Stamas] slept there," Saiontz said. "He was real hard-working. He didn't sit around and drink coffee. He was in and out of the kitchen, making sure the tables were cleaned off. The place was open all night, and he was always there. It was the place to go."

And to stay and stay. A whole generation of people went there after something else: tin men and racetrack types and parents who'd just come from their kids' PTA meetings. Or those who'd bowled at the Hilltop Lanes around the corner or danced at The Alcazar or gathered at one of Jack Pollack's Trenton Democratic Club meetings where they'd try to get their traffic tickets fixed.

Or they went after the last CinemaScope feature at the Crest. Or, if they hadn't exhausted all conceivable conversation about Unitas and the Colts, they crossed the street to the Diner after Mandel-Ballow closed its doors at 2 in the morning, because the Diner would be open. Or on New Year's Eve they went to parties, and they went to the Diner afterward.

And the teen-age boys would drive past with their Saturday night dates to check whose cars were parked out front. If their buddies had arrived, they had the awful teen-age dilemma: Which is better, the potential for a make-out session, or hanging out with a bunch of funny guys?

So, figuring the odds, they dropped off their dates and went back to the Diner. They went for the adolescent knock sessions ("You're Hud." "No, you are." Translation: You look as good as the teen-age Gary Huddles with his movie-star looks. No, you do. The lines were wrapped in sarcasm as certainly as the Diner's hot dogs were wrapped in bologna.)

Or they went for the french fries in gravy, or the shrimp salad sandwiches or the cinnamon sticks. Or simply for the sense of being in the center of action in mid-century Northwest Baltimore.

And nobody thought twice about being out late at night.

"Today," Donald Saiontz was saying yesterday, "you can't imagine 14-year olds walking home at 4 in the morning. Back then, nobody thought twice about it. It was the last time of innocence, when you didn't worry about holdups and robberies and drugs."

Things change. Stamas, a delightful man who also owned the Old Court Inn and Restaurant 3900 before retiring in 1986, hit the jackpot with the Hilltop Diner. Meaning, he caught the wave as it was breaking.

In the Diner's postwar heyday, the suburban migration hadn't slipped past the county line. The streets were safe. The city's public schools, newly integrated, were turning out kids who not only learned how to read, but discovered the melting pot previously mentioned only in textbooks and Fourth of July speeches. Maybe, from the kids, their parents could learn.

The Diner was a place where people gathered and talked about such things late into the night, and this went on for the better part of two decades. Meanwhile, people began to move. In Northwest Baltimore, the Diner at Reisterstown Road and Rogers Avenue gave way to the Suburban House in Pikesville and the food courts at various shopping malls all the way to Carroll County.

We're spread out now, not only in Northwest Baltimore but all over. We have burglar alarms and gated communities, and there's cable television to amuse us all night long. We move to Columbia and Bel Air and Westminster and wonder if these are far enough from the city tumult.

And then we wonder why we feel isolated. And we read about Paul Stamas in the morning paper, and we remember. His Hilltop Diner wasn't on television, it was live. It was people talking to each other in a crowded room, and staying up as late as they wanted, and creating an energy that felt like it could last forever.

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