Diners feed craving for good cooking, fun atmosphere

Day and night, eateries offer something for everyone

Scene: clubs, bars, nightlife

November 27, 2003|By Meredith James | Meredith James,SUN STAFF

Once last call is announced, the bands pack up and DJs stop spinning, there are few late-night (or is it early-morning?) activities out there.

Whether to kick off an early start or to wind down a crazy night, diners remain the epicenter of all-hours culture for many folks. These around-the-clock eateries have long occupied a place in America's heart; they've been featured in television favorites Happy Days and Seinfeld and in the movie Grease.

The popularity of diners in Baltimore has been depicted in Barry Levinson's classic film Diner and his TV show Homicide: Life on the Street. An increase of college students in the area has led to a growth in diners' popularity.

"Diners are open 24 hours, so any time of day, it's available," says Towson Diner patron Joseph Haus. He's been frequenting the diner with five to six of his friends on Tuesday nights for several years.

Atmosphere also draws patrons to these late-night spots. Nearly all diners include a jukebox at tables and waitresses in crisp, starched garb. Some, like Tamber's Nifty Fifties, boast classic 1950s decor, while others focus on a few specialties.

The Papermoon Diner has a playful feel. Barbie and Ken dolls distinguish men's and women's bathrooms, a bathtub sits outside, and strands of Christmas lights illuminate the dining room.

The Hollywood Diner, which was featured in Diner and Sleepless in Seattle, serves its patrons and helps the community, as well.

The '50s-themed diner, complete with chrome, neon lighting and souvenirs from movie productions, benefits the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development. Some of the staff are members of the program, which teaches at-risk teen-agers job skills.

While health food is gaining popularity, diners continue to buck this trend. Home cooking of staple dishes, such as cheeseburgers, milkshakes and pancakes, proves that while tofu may be in, grease, cream and carbs are still the things for satisfying witching-hour cravings. The food is, for the most part, inexpensive and draws a diverse crowd.

Hollywood Diner manager Dino Xanthopoulos says that, in addition to the average Joe, "a lot of people come from City Hall, and we have had movie stars."

Regulars, like Towson patron Haus, are attracted to the friendly atmosphere and consistency of the menu in diners.

"You get regular customers, so you establish a relationship," explains Julie Diego, a waitress at the Nautilus diner.

"And yes, they always order the same thing," she says with a laugh.

Diego says diners have remained popular because of the convenience. Most are open 24 hours a day, are relatively inexpensive and fast, and offer large portions. She also notes that, at the Nautilus, at least, bakery goods are fresh, and the menu is expansive, offering "something for everyone."

"I like to bring people to diners because anybody can find something [to eat]. The menu is huge," Oron Haus, Joseph's son, says.

However, diners are probably best known for their breakfast foods served at all hours. From short stacks to omelets to French toast, foods traditionally associated with morning are not restricted to any time of day at your average diner.

"I don't do it anymore, but my girlfriend always eats breakfast foods in the middle of the night," Oron Haus says.

Whether it is the food, the convenience or the atmosphere, diners remain in a category all their own.

"There is good food. A diner is a diner," says Xanthopoulos.

For more nighttime activities, see page 48.

Area diners

Papermoon 410-889-4444, 227 W. 29th St., Baltimore

Double T area locations

Towson Diner 410-321-0407, 718 York Road

Bel-Loc Diner 410-668-2525, corner of Joppa Road and Loch Raven Boulevard, Baynesville

Hollywood Diner 400 E. Saratoga St., Baltimore, 410-962-5379

Tamber's Nifty Fifties 410-243-0383, 3327 St. Paul St., Baltimore

Nautilus 410-561-9236, 2047 York Road, Timonium

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