Bel-Loc Diner a throwback to simpler, calmer times

September 19, 2002

SOME YEARS ago, at the end of an evening that included a few too many cocktails, I sat down with a piece of lined composition paper and penned the immortal "Ode to the Bel-Loc Diner."

It was a tribute to the legendary retro eatery that squats like a giant, shimmering glass-and-chrome toad just off the Beltway in Parkville, at the corner of Loch Raven and Joppa.

With very few brain cells operating, I ticked off all the things I loved about the joint: the omelets the size of manhole covers and the thick milkshakes served in the tall, stainless-steel shakers, the red vinyl booths and the little jukeboxes with Sinatra tunes at each table, the waitresses in their crisp white uniforms who called you "Hon" and moved through the aisles, their arms laden with plates of food, with the righteous swagger of Green Berets.

God, I loved that poem.

For about seven hours.

Unfortunately, as so often happens when you mix prose and peppermint schnapps, the poem did not seem quite as brilliant when I awoke the next day.

Reading it again while knocking back a fistful of Bayer and listening to the kids fight about whose turn it was on the computer, the poem struck me as horrid, and so I threw it away, lest it set the medium back into the Dark Ages.

But the good news is, someone else has now written about the Bel-Loc, someone - actually two someones - far more accomplished than me.

The Bel-Loc, you see, is included in the updated version of Jane and Michael Stern's popular Roadfood, which bills itself as "The Coast-to-Coast Guide to 500 of the Best Barbecue Joints, Lobster Shacks, Ice Cream Parlors, Highway Diners and Much More."

Oh, sure, there are a few other prominent local eateries in the book, including Gunning's Crab House and Obrycki's and the Woman's Industrial Exchange, which don't exactly strike me as places that serve "road food," defined by the Sterns as "informal food" that "is almost always inexpensive."

But the Bel-Loc, which has been around since 1964, sure does. Bill Doxanas, who took over the business from his father in 1972, calls it "a unique place. Yeah, it's behind the times. But we want to keep it that way. People say to me: `Are you on the Internet?' I say: `What's that?' "

Yesterday, at 10:30 in the morning, the tiny parking lot was nearly full and the joint was crowded with businessmen, blue-collar workers, senior citizens and young couples fueling up on what Doxanas says he does best, namely "cholesterol and caffeine."

Doxanas, 52, a big man with unruly brown hair and a ready smile, sat at a rear booth and spoke with pride about his little 130-seat diner.

He arrives at the diner between 4:30 and 5:00 every morning, and opens the doors at 6. For 36 years, the Bel-Loc was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But then, he says, the neighborhood started to change and tougher drunk-driving laws began scaring away the crowds he once got when the bars closed at 2 a.m.

Maybe there was a blessing in disguise here, because serving a short stack of hotcakes or sausage and eggs to boozed-up bikers and glassy-eyed college kids is its own form of hell.

Never mind the white uniform - they should issue you a bullwhip and a stool if you're a waitress wading into an after-hours crowd.

But it was clear to Doxanas that the breakfast habits of his sober customers were changing as well.

Suddenly, everyone seemed to be in a hurry the minute the alarm clock went off in the morning. More and more people were ducking into Starbucks on their way to the office for a latte and a scone to go, or pulling up to the drive-in window at McDonald's for a cup of joe and an Egg McMuffin.

"Everybody wants quickness," Doxanas sighed.

Service that quick he couldn't give them. But the Bel-Loc continues to thrive, operating on the sound business principle known as "Good food, cheap" that has sustained every form of eatery from shotgun shacks with pigs roasting on spits out front to neighborhood shot-and-a-beer joints that serve the best corned beef and cabbage this side of heaven.

The prices on the Bel-Loc menu aren't exactly from the Eisenhower administration, but they don't seem to be from George W.'s era, either.

Most of the sandwiches are in the $3 to $5 range, dinner entrees average around $7. The most expensive entrees are the choice T-bone steak that goes for $14 and Maryland backfin crab cakes, which go for $13.50, prices Doxanas seems almost embarrassed to charge without, say, an accompanying floor show.

All in all, the Bel-Loc seems blissfully stuck in a bygone, simpler time. In fact, Doxanas said that when Barry Levinson was looking around years ago for a place to shoot Diner, his sweet, nostalgic look at young men coming of age in '60s Baltimore, he inquired whether the Bel-Loc might be available.

"In my infinite wisdom, I said no," Doxanas recalled with a smile. "We would have had to be closed for six weeks. I didn't think that was fair to my customers. Of course, if I had known it was going to be a big hit ... "

If Baltimore revels in the past, if it sometimes seems stuck in amber, then the Bel-Loc is the home office for the way things used to be.

The waitresses still operate under an unwritten rule that: "If you're not friendly, you're outta here." The orange juice is still squeezed by hand, the soups and pies are still homemade, and they still peel and cut 2,000 pounds of potatoes per week to make their home fries.

"I know what I am," Doxanas said softly. "I don't try to be something I'm not."

When I left him yesterday, Doxanas was talking about the new-fangled CD jukeboxes at each booth that have replaced the old-fashioned jukeboxes with their 45-rpm records, a change he agreed to reluctantly.

"It got to the point where you couldn't get anything in the old 45's except Christmas songs," he said. "We didn't want these new ones. But what could you do?"

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