- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Saturday night is “cruise night” at the Happy Day Diner on U.S. Route 40 east of Baltimore. That means in addition to the usual run of customers stopping in for a cheeseburger or chicken pot pie, a few other ingredients are added to the mix.

Here’s one now: a bright, fire-engine-red 1963 Ford Fairlane, owned by Terry Lewis, president of the Antique Motor Club of Greater Baltimore. Then there’s Michael Polis’ 1931 Ford Model A Deluxe Coupe, just back from a chug to Indianapolis. Pretty soon, Ray and Ginger Rothenbach’s 1974 Chrysler New Yorker rolls in with all the aplomb of a cruise liner under full steam.

Before the night is out, more than 50 hot rods, street rods, and classic cars will be parked outside. Inside, waitresses serve up piles of french fries and mounds of rice pudding and, of course, more than a few milkshakes, thick and rich, in those stainless steel containers that conjure up more than a few memories.

“We like a place that we can come to and get our chairs out and hang out like the 1950s,” says Carl Machen of Essex, vice president of the Antique Motor Club of Greater Baltimore and the proud owner of a 1956 vintage truck.

“You’d be surprised how many people stop by to see the cars and end up going in for a meal,” Mr. Machen says.

He is also one of the Route 40 Cruzers, an informal collection of car enthusiasts from a variety of car clubs who come together to gossip, gab and take a gander at each other’s cars. No purists here: A carefully restored classic car can sit cheek by jowl with a street rod with a Ford body, a Chevy engine and a state-of-the-art sound system.

It’s a lot like what happens inside the Happy Day itself, where a diverse collection of seniors, teens, truckers and neighborhood folk line up together at the counter or get to know the waitress over a slice of pie.

Looking for something to do this weekend? Like the Happy Day, many of today’s diners are serving up a little something extra along with those burgers and fries. You can check out a car show, take in a classic movie, or even have brunch at a place that has starred in more than a few films.

It’s all happening at area diners, which serve up good food, nostalgia and a little something extra in equal measure.

“Whenever I’m traveling, I’ll stop in at a diner before I go to a commercial fast food place,” says Charlie Bull of Glen Burnie from a counter stool at Baltimore’s Hollywood Diner. “It’s a re-creation of a time gone by.”

• • •

A good diner can be hard to find, but on U.S. Route 40 east of Baltimore, classic diners stud the highway all the way to the Delaware line. Of course, not all of them can boast a parking lot filled with classic cars.

Outside at the Happy Day, the car folk have set up lawn chairs beside their Camaros and Model A’s; inside, they’re chowing down on sour beef and strawberry pie.

“It’s the best place to go to get a strawberry shortcake,” says Maria Pigiaditis, who after 10 years of working at the diner bought the place earlier this summer after the owner decided to return to Brazil.

Mrs. Pigiaditis inherited a lot more than just bricks and mortar — or in this case, stainless steel and Formica — when she bought the Happy Day. She also took on the Route 40 Cruzers, who had been encouraged to come to the diner by the previous owner.

“I’ve not yet met an unfriendly person at one of these things,” says Bill Salisbury Jr. He’s showing off his 19631/2 Ford Galaxie, a car he chose because it was built in the year of his birth. The half-year models are especially collectible.

“You can walk up to a total stranger, and they’ll help you out with recommendations and advice,” he says of the people at the car shows.

The cars themselves are a mix of styles. John and Beverly Barr of Middle River, for example, have a 1939 Ford Standard with a 357 Chevy V-8 engine. They always heard it was used for running moonshine, and there is a hidden cache under the floorboards in the trunk. These days, though, pride of place is given to the display in the rear seat, a collection of flags and military memorabilia.

“I remember Vietnam,” says Mrs. Barr, whose husband is a Vietnam veteran. “When they came home, nobody gave them honor and glory. This is a tribute to our troops.”

After several hours at the Happy Day, most of the car enthusiasts head off to hang out at another Baltimore institution, the Circle Drive-In, for some soft ice cream.

“We used to race there,” says Mr. Machen. “Whenever we get behind the wheel we feel like we’re teenagers again.”

• • •

According to Richard J.S. Gutman, author of 1979’s “American Diner” and its 1993 update, “American Diner: Then and Now,” the roots of the modern diner stretch far beyond the ‘50s and ‘60s. In the late 19th century, some enterprising New Englanders began selling meals out of wagons to late-night factory workers. Within just a few years, the business expanded to the point that companies were created just to produce the wagons.

Today, most folks associate the “look” of a diner with the appearance it took on in its golden age from the mid-1930s to the mid-‘50s, when the “streamlining” craze transformed the boxy wagons into sleek, shiny creations that brought to mind the streamlined railroad cars of the time.

However, most diners did not start out their lives as railroad cars, says Ype Von Hengst, a co-founder and vice president for culinary operations for the Silver Diner, which has 11 locations in the Washington area — and others beyond.

“It really had nothing to do with the railroad,” he says. “It all started with the lunch wagon.”

By the 1920s, these lunch wagons, now called diners, were less mobile and more roomy than they had been, perched on permanent or semi-permanent sites rather than tooling around in search of business. They also began to move out of the city, along the new roads and highways built to accommodate those new automobiles that were proving so popular.

• • •

During the diner’s golden age, it was a highway staple, featuring inexpensive but unremarkable fare. In those years, the nation boasted about 6,000 diners, according to numbers furnished five years ago to Restaurants USA magazine by Daniel Zilka, director of a planned American diner museum in Providence, R.I. By 2000, Mr. Zilka estimated, only 2,500 diners were left.

The decline began in the 1960s and ‘70s. That’s when diners started to lose out to the burgeoning fast food industry, where the food was just as plain but the quality more predictable than the local diner.

Today, of course, it is possible for a diner to push the culinary envelope a bit. At the Hollywood Diner in downtown Baltimore, weekend brunch features Chesapeake shrimp and a ham and goat cheese roulade along with the requisite pancakes and egg dishes.

“We’re trying for a little bit more quality than a diner would normally see,” says Emily Santos, who took over as the Hollywood’s general manager last January.

The 1954 diner was originally on Long Island, until director Barry Levinson towed it to Charm City for his eponymous paean to the diner era. Since then, it has also appeared in other movies, like “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Liberty Heights,” and in the television series “Homicide.”

The denizens of this diner are hardly star-struck, especially early in the morning, when bleary-eyed workers from nearby Mercy Hospital and firefighters and police officers from the stations around the block stop by on their way to and from work.

Those who can linger do so, especially to enjoy the Hollywood’s pancakes, richly brown and crisp around the edges. During lunch, the Baltimorean sandwich of roast beef, mozzarella and gravy is a very popular item.

Then there’s the soundtrack, ‘60s-era soul and rhythm and blues, delivered through a state-of-the-art satellite system. It isn’t long before customers and servers alike (and even Miss Santos) start moving to the beat, mouthing the lyrics, and occasionally, even singing out loud.

• • •

That’s the vibe that Washington restaurateur Jeffrey Gildenhorn aspired to when he came up with the vision for his American City Diner, which serves up equal parts of food and nostalgia on Connecticut Avenue NW just south of Chevy Chase Circle.

“I made it a point to try to be as authentic as I can,” says Mr. Gildenhorn, who commissioned his 1988 diner from Kullman Industries Inc., one of the few remaining diner manufacturers still in business. Kullman later built the Silver Diner in Rockville.

The result is a pert package of a diner, complete with silver sides, granite countertops, and Naugahyde booths.

“We’ve got all the familiar brand names,” says Mr. Gildenhorn. “The soups are made fresh, and you can get breakfast all day.”

Mr. Gildenhorn grew up in Washington, so he’s familiar with quasi-diners like Hot Shoppes and Little Tavern. But he wanted his American City Diner to be even more special, something tailored to its neighborhood.

Four years ago, after the Avalon Theater a couple of blocks north shut its doors, Mr. Gildenhorn began showing movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s on an 8-by-8-foot screen in his specially designed “movie deck.” They’re a popular pastime for aficionados of classic films.

Recent flicks at the diner give a flavor of the bill: 1950s fasten-your-seat-belts Bette Davis drama “All About Eve”; 1957’s archetypal Western “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas; and Jimmy Cagney paired with blonde bombshell Jean Harlow in “The Public Enemy,” an anomaly in that it’s from 1931.

“I’m the producer and projectionist,” says Mr. Gildenhorn, who confesses to programming movies that he likes. “But we try to stick to the movies that were shown in the fifties and sixties.”

When the Avalon reopened in 2003, the diner stopped showing movies.

“I didn’t want to take away any thunder from the Avalon,” says Mr. Gildenhorn, who describes himself as a big supporter of that theater. “We started having live jazz on the movie deck so we wouldn’t compete.”

After a few months, with the blessing of the Avalon management, Mr. Gildenhorn resumed his classic movies. It’s hardly competition; the Avalon these days specializes in first-run documentaries and foreign-language films.

• • •

At the time of Mr. Gildenhorn’s vision, few new diners existed. The venerable Tastee diners were still in operation in Fairfax, Bethesda, Silver Spring and Laurel, but most people didn’t really think of a diner as a destination.

That was all going to change. The American City Diner helped to usher in a nationwide fascination with the neighborhood diner as American icon, and Washingtonians began to appreciate the lure of familiar food in friendly surroundings.

So in the late 1980s, when Robert Giaimo, who was to become a co-founder and president of the Silver, picked up a copy of “American Diner,” the book brought back memories of the Thruway Diner, a chow palace in New Rochelle, N.Y., where he used to hang out.

The idea for the Silver Diner was born.

“It really brought a smile and a lot of memories,” Mr. Giaimo recalls of the book. “Even as the world changes, people always long for something that they can trust.”

Mr. Giaimo and Mr. Von Hengst — former partners in the American Cafe chain of restaurants, which was known for its use of fresh ingredients with an urban vibe — traveled the country in search of what was good, great and not-so-good about American diners.

“We wanted to combine the best of the old and the best of the new,” says Mr. Giaimo. “We wanted to look at the diner heritage but fit the food to today’s standards.”

The first Silver Diner opened in Rockville in 1989. Despite the usual diner accouterments, including, of course, silver sides, the Silver Diner is no ordinary diner. While you can get a burger and fries at the Silver, you can also find heart-friendly and low-carbohydrate meals.

Such menu selections as Cajun chicken pasta and crab cakes made with jumbo lump crabmeat place it at the forefront, if not the cutting edge, with food lovers. Right now, its summer citrus salad with mango dressing is a very popular item.

“We wanted a package that fits today,” says Mr. Von Hengst. “We’re totally not a greasy spoon place.”

The Silver also takes seriously its place in the community, with promotions of neighborhood events common. It has a long-standing relationship with the Muscular Dystrophy Association and gives special consideration — 50 percent off — to uniformed police officers and firefighters.

The Silver has even started its own version of “cruise night.” You can find it on Wednesdays at the Silver Diner in Gaithersburg — which is, surprisingly, attached to Lakeforest Mall.

Washington Grove resident John Tomlin usually comes by with his 1962 Chevy 409. That’s the one the Beach Boys wrote the song about.

“I’m very grateful to the Silver Diner for providing for cruise-night space in the middle of Montgomery County,” he says. “It’s nice to have a place to come to, have a meal and talk about cars.”

Take your pick of diners in the D.C. area

Looking for your own special diner? Here’s a sampling of what the area has to offer. Note that most diners are not open 24 hours.

District

• American City Diner: 5532 Connecticut Ave. NW. 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 24 hours Friday and Saturday. The movies start at 8:30 p.m. Up tonight is “A Place in the Sun” (1951). Tomorrow and Saturday bring “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939). Call 202/244-1949 or see the complete weekly schedule at americancitydiner.com.

• The Diner: 2453 18th St. NW. Sunday brunch in your pajamas. Open 24 hours. 202/232-8800.

Maryland

m Happy Day Diner: 8302 Pulaski Highway, Rosedale. You’ll know the Happy Day from the giant Elvis perched on the entrance roof. 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 24 hours Friday and Saturday. “Cruise nights” 5-9 p.m. every Saturday, weather permitting. Aug. 27 will be a special evening as the Cruzers honor the departing owner, Cloves Da Cunha, with even more cars and a DJ. 410/687-2129 or happydaydiner.com.

• Hollywood Diner: 400 E. Saratoga St., Baltimore. Since 1991, the Hollywood Diner has been run by the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development, which offers job training for young persons interested in the restaurant industry. On Sunday mornings, patrons can enjoy the farmer’s market that adjoins the site. 6 a.m.-3 p.m. daily. 410/962-5379.

• New Ideal Diner: 104 S. Philadelphia Blvd., Aberdeen. A smoke-free diner, the fourth diner on this site. Crab cakes a specialty. 5:30 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. 410/272-1880.

• Overlea Diner: 6652 Belair Road, Baltimore. Just inside the city line on Route 1. Named “Best Diner” in 2004 by Baltimore’s City Paper, which praised it for its food, its service and its cleanliness. 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday. Closed Christmas and New Year’s Day. 410/254-8356.

• Silver Diner Gaithersburg: 701 Russell Ave. (Lakeforest Mall), Gaithersburg. One of 11 Silver Diners in the Washington area. 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday. Wednesday “cruise nights,” weather permitting, start at 6 p.m. 240/632-2900 or silverdiner.com.

• Tastee Diner: All Tastee Diners are open 24 hours. Closed on Christmas. See tasteediner.com.

• Silver Spring: 8601 Cameron St. 301/589-8171.

• Bethesda: 7731 Woodmont Ave. 301/652-3970.

• Laurel: 118 Washington Blvd. S. 301/953-7567.

Virginia

• Amphora’s Diner Deluxe: 1151 Elden St., Herndon. Open 24 hours. 703/925-0900.

• Bob & Edith’s Diner: 2310 Columbia Pike, Arlington. Open 24 hours. 703/ 920-6103.

• Metro 29 Diner: 4711 Lee Highway, Arlington. Open until 1 a.m. weekdays and until 3 a.m. weekends. 703/528-2464.

• 29 Diner of Fairfax: 10536 Lee Highway, Fairfax. A rare survivor from the 1940s, the 29 Diner was built by the Mountain View Diner Company and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Open 24 hours. 703/591-6720. 29diner.com.

Are you sure you’re in a diner?

What’s in a diner? What constitutes a real diner can be the subject of intense debate, often centering on whether the structure was prefabricated and towed in two parts to the site. But the true essence of a diner comes from a combination of physical plant and inside vibe. Here’s a 10-point tongue-in-cheek guide to help you through the ins and outs of diner authenticity.

1. Silver sides: While silver-sided diners were not original to the lunch wagon, they certainly help identify the genre today. So a silver-sided eating place — whether it was built in the ‘20s or as recently as 2000 — definitely pushes a place in the diner direction.

2. Counters with stools: Check out those diner counters carefully. If the stools have backs, you may not be in a diner at all, but in a luncheonette or coffee shop. Don’t be fooled by the concession to comfort. Diner customers are supposed to hunker down over their cup of joe (particularly in the middle of the night); they shouldn’t expect to get too comfortable.

3. Thick dishes: Forget the fine china. A real diner will have thick, serviceable plates, preferably with a thick-but-faded band of red or blue around the edge.

4. Diner lingo: Beware of diner staff who shout out orders of “Adam and Eve on a raft” or some other incomprehensible phrase. Nobody speaks that way any more, and the use was suspect even when diners were first appearing. And whatever its name, your local diner should always be referred to as “the diner.”

5. Milkshakes: Were they mixed in an Osterizer? Do they come in a stainless steel container that gives you enough for a second serving in a (real) glass? And, by the way, if you have to eat your milkshake with a spoon, that’s not a real diner milkshake. You should be able to slurp it up easily.

6. Hours: A true diner should be open 24 hours, at the very least on the weekends. And at 3 a.m. the waiter or waitress should be somewhat surly, or at least not perky.

7. Servers: At least one server should have worked there 20 years or more. Even if they don’t know your name, they should make you feel somewhat more special than, say, the next person in line at your local fast-food joint.

8. Patrons: Diners were and should be egalitarian. A true diner will have a mix of people, including youngsters, seniors, teens, couples and scary-looking guys with a full day’s growth of beard eating alone at the counter. Dress should be casual, although late-night diners who have obviously come from somewhere fancy are a plus.

9. Food: Good, but not so good that commenting on the chef’s inventiveness stifles the conversation.

10. Friends: A true diner should have regulars. So after a while, you should be able to recognize some of the other diners by face if not name.

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