The vegan muffaletta at the Lost City Diner features smoked… (Colby Ware, Special to The…)
Back in August, when news got out that the Lost City Diner had opened, a town full of cynics said, "Aw, you're pulling my leg!"
But "Gee whiz!" folks sighed when they got a peek inside the new Charles North corner diner. "She's a beauty."
In development for what seemed like an eternity, the Lost City Diner stands as Joy Martin's tribute to the epitome of American interior design and to the enduring appeal of vintage science-fiction illustration. The results ravish. The interior showcases Martin's impeccable eye for salvageable material and her impressive skills at shepherding the stable of artists who have contributed original works to the restaurant.
"We researched things down to the last detail," Martin said, explaining the diner's long gestation period.
The interior aesthetic, which combines elements of Art Deco and Art Nouveau, carries through to the tableware and even the staff's Eastern European surplus uniforms. The sci-fi celebration extends to the menu design and to the names of some menu items, like the Jupiter, Titan and Mars burgers. Nostalgia floods the restaurant's dessert and fountain program, which involves an extensive list of contemporary and classic fountain treats — a New York Egg Cream, a Tin Roof and the Knickerbocker.
The picture stays clear, or clear enough, until dinner time. Then things get fuzzy, like the picture on a 1950s TV set.
The basic menu consists of a few appetizers — it needs more of them — along with burgers, sandwiches and entrees. The kitchen has remembered vegans and vegetarians, and the menu has its moments of wit, creativity and ambition. But the results vary so unpredictably that you end up wishing they'd just thought of a tuna sandwich, a turkey club, and french fries and gravy.
The first thing listed on the Lost City Diner menu is a coddies appetizer, but the Baltimore diner nostalgia stops there, and the rest of the menu bounces from galaxy to galaxy like a doomed spaceship. The menu lists these five entrees — grilled pork chops, pepper stuffed with quinoa, macaroni and cheese, tamale pie and Peruvian chicken served with black beans and wilted greens. Does not compute.
Of course, if everything on the menu satisfies, coherence stops being a concern. But the root beer-brined pork chops, served with astronaut-pack mashed potatoes and whipped squash, show up tender but bland, edible but forgettable. The interest in the skillet-baked tamale pie wears off just about the time you discover how little pulled pork is below the cornmeal crust. The chicken, accompanied by watery black beans and rice, was bloody beneath its skin.
The chicken waffle shows the kitchen at its clever best, sandwiching tender, county-fried chicken breast on Belgian waffles and serving it with a homemade strawberry-onion marmalade. What sounds like a calorie bomb turns out to be almost dainty, something you can actually pick up in your hands and eat. A pepper-crusted burger, the Mars, is served with pickled cherry peppers on a good challah bun but is undercooked. The french fries are sadly limp.
The basic idea of the Saturn Rings, an appetizer of lightly fried apple rings, makes sense. Served with a side of tangy horseradish ranch dressing, the rings have a nice play of sweet, salty and sour. Blotting the rings dry before sending them out would have made a big difference. Other appetizers don't come off as well. Pretty brown coddies succeed neither at re-creating nor updating a bygone Baltimore staple, which were simple cakes of cod flakes and potato. They have no cod flavor at all. A baked potato appetizer, topped with tasty pulled pork, feels too weird to be one of only three options.
The extensive fountain program makes an adorable impression. But I'd trade the two pages of toppings, combinations and clever specialties for one dish of really good ice cream. I'd trade the vintage sundae glasses for ones that didn't make the ice cream spill out when you looked at them.
I'd trade it all for a cocktail, too. The Lost City Diner, which is BYOB, doesn't serve alcohol.
Packed since it opened, the Lost City Diner hasn't had time for reflection and tweaking. Martin owns the Club Charles a block south, where she's known for her indulgent and generous support of the artists who have made the landmark bar a second home. Lost City Diner needs her to play the villain. The wait staff dishonors the losing armies whose uniforms they wear. Food is served to customers who don't have utensils; water glasses aren't refilled. The staff smiles in one another's company but not their diners'.
Don't lose hope. There are hundreds of hungry earthlings passing by the Lost City Diner, on their way to and from the picture show, who would stand and cheer if this new eatery got itself together. Buck Rogers got himself out of worse jams than this.
Lost City Diner
Where: 1730 N. Charles St.
Hours: Open daily for dinner.
Prices: Appetizers, $3-$7; entrees, $11-$15
[Key: Outstanding:✭✭✭✭ ; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor:✭] Text DINING to 70701 to sign up for dining news and restaurant reviews text alerts