Maybe it is the bright lights on its facade, or the vivid colors of the dining room walls, or Sinatra crooning over its sound system. Whatever the reason, Tony's Diner reminds me of dining in an Atlantic City hotel.
First a note on the restaurant's exterior: It is cool. At night, seven pillars of colored lights wash the upper reaches of the restaurant's front. The lights slowly change colors. This brightens a stretch of Park Avenue just north of 1st Mariner Arena and blends in nicely with the neon glow of a sign reading "Tony's Diner." All that is needed to complete the picture are limos pulling up, unloading big spenders.
There are three parts to Tony's operation: a deli, a dining room and a bar. It serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The dining room opens at midafternoon and serves until the wee hours of the morning. Its bright red-and-blue walls are so vibrant that you feel as if you are dining in the middle of the American flag. The dining room food is good, if somewhat grand for a diner, as are the prices.
I shared a meal with Tony the Tiger. The visage of this cartoon character was one of the images that lined the dining room walls. This is not the Tony who runs the restaurant. That would be Tony Assadi, who is also proprietor of Luna del Sea restaurant on West Pratt Street .
Dishes here are done up, decorated. A glass of water comes garnished with four artfully sliced pieces of lemon. The shrimp cocktail ($9.99) also sported a plethora of lemon slices. They almost outnumbered the six shrimp. This dish was the classic combination of steamed shrimp perched above a cocktail sauce. Its flavor was satisfying, if not spectacular
The chicken Florentine ($14.99), a breast stuffed with spinach and provolone, was striking in its presentation. The plate consisted of the stuffed chicken breast, moist and flavorful, a helping of remarkably fresh squash and broccoli, a mound of smashed potatoes and twists of orange resting on a slice of honeydew melon. Everything — except the chewy honeydew — was done well.
The linguini scampi with clams ($13.99) was a little dull. Oddly, it came with a baked potato, a carbohydrate overload.
The coconut lemon cake ($4.99) was dry; the cheesecake ($4.99) was better. It too was coconut, although it was described by the waitress as plain.
The service was exceptionally friendly, but not polished. When I asked for the choices of cheesecake, a server hollered them out to me, across the room and over Sinatra's piped-in singing.
Wines by the glass are not listed on the menu, and when I asked for a glass of Zinfandel, I had to settle for a glass of Malbec, which at $9 seemed pricey. You could say this proves you shouldn't order wine in a diner. But even though there are $5 pancakes and $6 burgers on this menu, Tony's also has $13 stuffed-mushroom appetizers and a $25 New York strip steak. That kind of fare attracts wine-drinkers.
The food and facade of Tony's Diner have a good look. But I am still not sure whether they belong in a diner or a dining room.
Where: 8 Park Ave., Baltimore
Hours: 8 a.m. to midnight, Monday-Friday and 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday-Sunday
[Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]
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