Now playing at the old Pikes Theater: The Pikes Diner

EATS

April 20, 2006|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Once upon a time, the Pikes Movie Theater was the place to go for the latest Alfred Hitchcock or Woody Allen movie.

But the theater, which opened in 1937, suffered an identity crisis after it closed 50 years later. For a while it sat vacant, while plans floated around to turn it into a performing arts theater. That didn't work out, and in the late '90s it became an Italian deli, DiPasquale's. The next incarnation, a kosher cafeteria called Cafe 921, seemed like a sure thing in the heavily Jewish area, but that didn't work out either.

Now, Will Reich, owner of Jilly's restaurants in Ellicott City and Pikesville, as well as the Forest Diner in Ellicott City, has taken the helm. Reich is the master of what I consider Diner Lite. His restaurants are basically diners, but they have shorter menus than the average open-all-night greasy spoon.

The menu at Pikes Diner, which opened in January, doesn't differ much from the menus at his other venues: salads, sandwiches and breakfast foods are the main attractions, as well as a few stabs at heavier fare like burgers ($5.99), fried chicken ($5.99), and barbecued ribs ($14.99).

Appetizers are typical and expected and are mostly fried. These include onion rings ($5.49), fried calamari ($7.59) and mozzarella sticks ($6.49). Yawn.

I opted instead for Maryland crab soup ($2.49) and was pleased when our waitress returned with a cup positively overflowing with chunks of tomato, celery and crab. She told us she had scooped the good stuff from the bottom of the pot, giving me almost no broth. The soup - or should I say, the tomato-crab stew - was thick enough to eat with a fork and just about perfectly spiced. I just wish she had taken a moment to clean the cup where soup had sloshed down the side.

A special of the day was a salad topped with blackened tuna ($11.95). The strips of fish were a little too salty and a little too dry, but they were artfully arranged over a lovely salad of dark greens, bits of mandarin orange, red onion rings and cucumber slices. Its balsamic dressing was creamy and tart. Wedges of tomato, though, were winter-pink and downright crunchy. If you can't find good ones, why use them at all?

Like any decent diner, Pikes offers a seemingly endless selection of omelets, including ones made with lox, goat cheese and steak. The crab omelet ($8.99) was fluffy and perfectly formed, filled with beautiful snowy lumps of seafood. It came with oniony, slightly greasy but totally delicious fried potatoes, and toast.

The burger was good, too, generously portioned, juicy, flavorful and served on a substantial roll. It came with respectable fries and a tub of creamy coleslaw livened with the earthy crunch of caraway seeds.

Desserts and coffee drinks are a big deal at the Pikes Diner. A display case holds a mouthwatering selection of pies, cakes, cookies and muffins, but unfortunately not all of the pies and cakes are sold by the slice.

That meant we couldn't try the fabulous-looking coconut cake, but a single-serving strawberry Bavarian made an excellent consolation prize. It was both light and decadent, with a ladyfinger exterior, delicate lemon filling and slices of strawberry. It was even better than the slightly dry but aptly named chocolate buzz, which featured a layer of chocolate cake topped with a layer of white frosting, the whole thing surrounded by a delicate wall of chocolate.

Reich has spent a lot of time and money on the interior of his new restaurant. He knows that part of the fun of dining out is people-watching, and the theater was simply too big for that intimate feeling he wanted to create.

He solved the problem by decorating the space in a cheerful movie theme, including life-sized statues of John Belushi and Dan Akroyd as the Blues Brothers. Movie posters of such classic films as Singin' in the Rain are accented by frames of blinking lights. By the entrance, colorful gift items, Fisher's popcorn and movie-sized boxes of candy are for sale.

The space has also been divided into a bakery section, a coffee bar and a main dining room. Reich has applied for a liquor license, and when he gets it he plans to create a martini bar with a Humphrey Bogart theme and a late-night tapas menu, he said.

All these details keep the space from feeling like the inside of an airplane hangar, while still leaving it sunny and spacious.

A friend told me her mother has already been to the Pikes Diner three times, even though she complained that the food wasn't anything special. That little story, to me, indicates that this restaurant may break the string of failures at the site. It may not have particularly innovative or dazzling food, but it serves comforting fare in a fun setting.

Plus, you can people-watch.

Pikes Diner

Where:

921 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville

Call:

410-653-5545

Open:

7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday

Credit cards:

All major

Prices:

Appetizers $2.49-$8.49, entrees $6.99-$14.99

Food:

*** (3 stars)

Service:

*** (3 stars)

Atmosphere:

** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

[Outstanding:**** Good:*** Fair or uneven:** Poor:*

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