Baltimore needs more 1950s diners

CITY DIARY: Fred Shoken

April 04, 2001

TWENTY YEARS ago last month, Barry Levinson returned home to direct the film "Diner." The movie quickly became a cult classic among diner aficionados. Baltimore gained a reputation as a diner town, but few knew our dirty little secret: Baltimore hasn't been a diner town since the 1950s.

A onetime Long Island diner had to be trucked into town for the movie. The Hilltop Diner that inspired the film is now a Reisterstown Road liquor store. Encased in brick, two stainless steel panels peek out, revealing its past.

The diner used in the movie is now the Hollywood Diner, run by a nonprofit organization to provide job training for at-risk kids. Although it has the great classic diner look, with stainless-steel facade, counter service and comfortable booths, it is open regularly only for breakfast and lunch. A real diner should be open late, if not 24 hours.

If Baltimore truly wants to improve its nightlife, we need downtown diners -- the perfect place to go after a concert, the theater, a movie or dancing. Diners attract people from all walks of life. With inexpensive prices, late hours, comfort food and hot coffee, diners are the perfect place to wind up an evening on the town.

Diners don't require much room. They can be cubby-holed into vacant lots and leftover tracts of land. One manufacturer has a floor plan for a 40-seat diner that is 45 feet long and only 14 feet wide. All we need are a few entrepreneurs to buy into this idea. Here are a few suggestions for in-town diners:

A waterfront location would be ideal. Along Commerce Street just north of Pratt Street is a small grassy strip against a parking garage. It may not look big, but it's big enough for a diner. An Inner Harbor diner at this location would be a short walk from all the downtown attractions.

The small parking lot on the north side of Lombard Street between Charles and Light streets. Additional waterfront spots are available along Key Highway, Inner Harbor East, Fells Point and Canton.

Camden Yards would be a great place for diners. The Short Stop Diner (taking a name from a Cooperstown eatery) could feature a moving rooftop neon sign of Cal Ripken diving for a ground ball. It could be wedged into a tight spot near Washington Boulevard and Greene Street facing Oriole Park. The Purple-D Diner featuring a silver Super Bowl trophy over the entrance could be located on Russell Street.

The Hollywood Diner could be a great spot for late-night meals. Hammerjacks recently opened around the corner and a new nightclub has been proposed for a building across the street. Although the late-night concept may not be a good fit for a diner run by a nonprofit, it could always be leased in the evenings and run by a private enterprise.

Farther uptown, there could be a diner across from the Woodberry Light Rail Station. It would attract workers from nearby industries, artists from adjacent studios, TV Hill personalities and kids from Johns Hopkins and Loyola. With a tall neon sign, the Woodberry Diner would be visible from the Jones Falls Expressway.

The owner of the Senator Theatre has plans for a diner across the street on York Road. This plan, along with the ones I've suggested, could turn Baltimore back into a diner town.

Can Baltimore of the 21st century recapture our diner past of the 1950s? If the Ravens were able to recapture Baltimore's love of football, then anything is possible.

Today's writer

Fred Shoken, a Baltimore native, is a local historic preservation and planning consultant who lives in Bolton Hill. He is a past president of Baltimore Heritage Inc., Baltimore's nonprofit citywide preservation organization.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues of concern to Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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