Hard Times, Good Eats
The same year saw the completion of Route 66, the first highway to seriously shape the nation's future. The Chicago-to-Los Angeles route was serpentine, winding through small rural communities and connecting them to major cities. Farmers had a new pipeline for shipping their products to large markets--and when the Dust Bowl ravaged the Midwest, they had an escape route to California.
All those Joads on the road had to eat somewhere, and diners proliferated to serve their needs. Though the archetypal diner is a 1930s-vintage dining-car-shaped structure decked with chrome, the name has become a generalized descriptor for restaurants serving basic fare at reasonable prices; being open around the clock with breakfast available anytime is frequently part of the package as well. A prime example is the Bel-Loc Diner (Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road, Towson.,  668-2525), where time stopped around 1964, leaving classic diner architecture, Formica counters with stainless-steel stools, vinyl booths, and uniformed waitresses who call you "hon." The menu contains no surprises--sandwiches, fries, lots of gravy--and breakfast is served 24 hours on weekends. The food is so-so (stick to breakfast, or pie and a milkshake) but astonishingly cheap, and the freeze-frame atmosphere alone is worth the visit.
For truly tasty diner-style food--plus outstanding people-watching--the Sip and Bite (2200 Boston St.,  675-7077) cannot be beat. Land of the hon, home of the drunk and the weird (all of whom want to sit down and talk with you), this 24-hour Canton eatery is the contemporary embodiment of a '30s diner's intended purpose: no-nonsense food, served fast and cheap in plain surroundings. The mushroom-smothered meat loaf here is tender and flavorful--and a mere $5.50, complete with two vegetables (get the mashed potatoes). Greek dishes such as moussaka or pastitsio are always a good bet, as is breakfast, and there's extra-tasty coconut cream pie for dessert.
Valentino's (6627 Harford Road,  254-4700) is another open-24-hours, easy-on-the-wallet restaurant in the diner tradition. Behemoth portions of Greek and Italian fare endear this place to Hamiltonians. There are two dozen dinners under 10 bucks, and breakfast--the best in Northeast Baltimore--is always available. Try to grab a seat under the Rudolph Valentino display that fills one entire wall, and then order a Bloody Mary while admiring stills from Blood and Sand. (Valentino's has a full bar, fairly rare for a diner).
As true diners slowly fade away, they are being supplanted by places that aren't actual diners so much as diner-themed restaurants, done up in faux-'50s style with extra chrome, neon jukeboxes, and Elvis and Marilyn iconography out the wazoo.The prices on the absurdly encyclopedic menus in these joints are at least double those of an authentic diner. Still, some folks love 'em.
Dundalk's Boulevard Diner (1660 Merritt Blvd.,  285-8660) is the best of the local shiny diners, even if it's closed late at night during the week. Prices here are fairly reasonable, the food is food reliably good, and portions are consistently large enough to get you looking like (the later, jumpsuit-era) Elvis in no time. Try the local version of mixed grill (pork chop, lamb chop, liver, and kielbasa) or the open-faced turkey sandwich. Whatever you order, save room--there is an enormous dessert case full of towering cakes, pies and pastries, all of which are baked on the premises.
Bigger and almost as shiny is the 24-hour Nautilus Diner (2047 York Road, Timonium,  561-9236) where the near-endless menu offers more varieties of turkey sandwich than many other restaurants have entrées. Service here is exceptionally prompt and friendly, and breakfasts are outstanding. Omelets are especially tasty--again, Greek influence is seen with ingredients like feta and spinach--but it just galls us to pay nearly six bucks for a standard breakfast of eggs, home fries, and toast.
If Charles Village's Tamber's Nifty Fifties Dining (3327 St. Paul St.,  243-0383) didn't already exist, would anyone else think to invent a faux-'50s diner serving burgers, fries and chicken tikka masala? The décor is straight Happy Days--red vinyl booths, Coca-Cola signs on the walls, and an oldies-packed jukebox. The menu is a mélange of patty melts and pakoras, milk shakes and malai kofta. It kinda works: the milk shakes are tolerable, as is the Indian food, and it all comes at exceedingly inexpensive prices.
One side effect of the Great Depression was that cooking at home became a fashionable pastime. Many middle- and upper-class families, having lost their fortunes, were forced to give up their cooks and servants; as a result, once-privileged ladies needed to learn the culinary arts. The publication of The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook in 1930 helped lead to a national craze for cookbooks, as well as radio shows and newspaper columns devoted to the art of the meal. Popular themes included how to stretch and substitute ingredients and how to make budget meals taste "expensive."
Who doesn't love to save money and eat well at the same time? One of our favorite supremely cheap eateries is Ashland Café (10810 York Road, Cockeysville,  666-3838). Breakfasts are divine and diverse (the classic eggs-and-meat, pigs-in-a-blanket, corned-beef hash, huge omelets), and lunch is unbelievably inexpensive. We're big fans of the fresh eggplant parmigiana or, for that matter, anything else the Ashland makes using its wonderfully spiced-up meat sauce.
The New Wyman Park Restaurant (138 W. 25th St.,  235-5100) in Charles Village is a classic corner café, with fast, friendly service and fantastic (if unassuming) breakfast and lunch food; almost everything on the menu is homemade, high quality, and less than $5. Try the hot turkey sandwich--The turkey comes from an actual bird! They carve it in front of you!--and any of the homemade soups. Daily lunch specials--also best bets--are set in stone: Monday is meat-loaf day, Thursday it's oregano-laced stuffed chicken. For dessert, Wyman's rice pudding is our favorite in the city.
In Hampden, Frazier's on the Avenue (919 W. 36th St.,  662-4914) is always a solid source for very reasonably priced and well-prepared seafood, steaks, and pasta. Savvy tightwads, however, know that on Wednesday and Thursday nights Frazier's has a New York strip steak with garlic mashed potatoes and a decent salad for just $6.95. There are also unconfirmed reports of a $6.95 crab-cake special and a whole lotta taxidermied ducks; actually, we're certain about the ducks, but the bargain crab cakes come and go so call ahead.
In an act of generosity, the owner of Gertrude's (Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive,  889-3399) transforms his beautiful--and expensive--restaurant into "Gertie's Café" each Tuesday night from 5 to 9 p.m. There is a special menu with 10 different creative entrées at $10 each, from portobello crab imperial to "Mama Lan's Five-Spice Chicken with Asian Noodles." The setting (overlooking the BMA's sculpture garden) is lovely and the service divine.
The '30s weren't all about thrift and home economics, though. Various gimmicky fads swept the nation, providing low-budget amusement and escape in the grim times following Black Thursday. Among the diversions were dance marathons, which were brutal endurance contests--couples danced for days, even weeks at a time. Winners could collect as much as $5,000 in prize money, but many contestants danced simply for the food and shelter they got while participating. Other fads--pole sitting, goldfish swallowing--were not so remunerative, but at least they were a distraction.
People still crave distraction, and the more entertaining local restaurants attempt to provide it through gimmickry. At Nacho Mama's in Canton (2907 O'Donnell St.,  675-0898), the décor is riotously jumbled, devoted in equal parts to the worship of Elvis and Natty Boh. The Mexican-accented menu offers quesadillas, enchiladas, fajitas, and a mysterious appetizer called the "Mexican Fishdo." There's better Tex-Mex to be had elsewhere (see the 1960s, page 41). What counts is the emphatically Bawlmer atmosphere, and the drinks. The house rule, clearly stated and strictly enforced, is "Natty Bo [sic] will not be served in a glass." High-octane margaritas are served (as are nachos) in hubcaps. Not pretty, straight-from-Western Auto hubcaps, either--these dinged-up babies look to have seen genuine automotive action.
Much as this city loves dining fun, Baltimore has long suffered an inexplicable dearth of restaurants where food is set on fire and manic, knife-juggling chefs roam the room. For years, only the relatively sedate Nichi Bei Kai (1524 York Road, Lutherville,  321-7090) offered table-side "eatertainment." Now, thrill-a-minute dining has established another local outpost: Ginza (56 Cranbrook Road, Cockeysville,  666-7800), a recently opened teppan yaki (Japanese for "flying food") (not really) restaurant. Ginza has a no-nonsense approach: You're seated with as many as seven strangers at a table with a grill in the center. Everyone orders steak, chicken, seafood, or veggie dinners; the chef wheels up a cart full of fixings, turns the grill into a sheet of flame, flings shrimp tails hither and yon, and flips knives in airspace exhilaratingly close to patrons' heads. There are giant "oil cans" of Sapporo beer. The food is tasty, and it's a pretty good time, especially considering Ginza's prices fall at the low end of the Japanese steak-house spectrum.
The marriage of gimmickry and food reaches its mind-boggling extreme in Jillian's (Arundel Mills, 7000 Arundel Mills Circle, Hanover,  755-0113), a sprawling restaurant/entertainment-plex. There's upscale pub grub as well as a Japanese steak house, but the food is basically beside the point, which is just as well ("boneless Buffalo wings," anyone?). Eating is merely another activity to squeeze in between real bowling, video bowling, dancing at the '80s-themed Groove Shack club, playing pool, or Whac-a-Mole-ing your brains out in the state-of-the-art arcade. Our favorite is the surreal virtual-bowling game Hyperbowl, in which your ball, projected onto a giant screen, careens through the streets of, say, San Francisco; eventually there are pins to knock down, but watch out for that car! Don't ask why. Just enjoy the experience, and bring your wallet--bowling is $4.50 a game on weekends (!), and the beer and cheese fries are gonna set you back even more.
Price Point (3/3/2010)
EAT: City Paper's annual dining guide
Harbor Area (3/3/2010)
Nice Tea (7/28/2010)
A foolproof guide to a summer staple
Welcome Home, Big Beef (4/28/2010)
Taking the grass-fed beef by the horns and cooking it
Let It Snow (2/24/2010)
Making sweet treats out of the fluffy white stuff
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