Everyone at the Papermoon Diner in Remington looks like they own the joint, even the inanimate objects.
Outside, life-sized mannequins commune with the trees and flowers at 227 W. 29th Street. An imposing blue and magenta bull stands on the grass. Disembodied limbs lie akimbo in a red shopping cart.
Inside, thousands of Pez candy containers with faces greet customers. Barbie dolls live in the dining areas. Also spotted on shelves and walls, in curio cabinets or hanging from the ceiling are Felix the Cat, a preppy male doll wearing a sweater, Hillary and Bill Clinton figurines, Tom of Tom and Jerry cartoons, a large, old-fashioned baby doll swaddled in white linens, and a cow chatting on a rotary phone. They all co-exist contentedly with toy trains, thumb-sized race cars, Asian fans, giant bullhorns, paper half-moons and a spinning globe of the world.
Humans, too, have the run of the place, which seats about 100 people in three rooms. One-year-old Drake Pfarr sat a table in his high chair on a recent Friday morning, waiting expectantly for breakfast with his parents, of Carroll County.
"It's his first time," said his mother, Morgana, a dental hygienist. "We were in the area."
Peter Nichol, 38, came from Harford, Conn. In town for a friend's upcoming wedding, he asked where the best breakfast spot in Baltimore was.
"So far, it's pretty cool," Nichol said, sitting on a counter stool, admiring the art. "But coming in is a shock."
Then there's Un Kim. Slumped comfortably in a booth, Kim also looked like she owned the joint, and she does. In 1994, the native of South Korea — who emigrated with her family at a young age and once was a single mother working in a sewing factory after her husband left her in her early 20s — took over a blue-collar, 24/7 diner in run-down Remington. She redesigned it with the help of her longtime friend and business consultant, David Briskie, a designer and the owner of Thurston & Lovey, a home and garden store in Hampden.
"You have to remember, Remington back then was tough," said Briskie, 50, a Maryland Institute College of Art graduate, who also lives in Hampden.
"Drugs and needles everywhere," said Kim, 58, of Keswick. "I was the only one who turned the lights on in this neighborhood."
The diner, first called Tuttle House and then Open House, reflected the neighborhood.
"It had a drop-down ceiling and plastic plates," Briskie said.
"And Burger King booths," Kim added. "It was a closed-down dive."
Kim renamed the diner Papermoon after her favorite movie, 1973's "Paper Moon," starring Ryan and Tatum O'Neal. She put the two words together as one word, so as not to step on any toes legally.
Cornucopia of kitsch
She and Briskie have spent years collecting tchotchkes at yard sales, flea markets, auctions and consignment shops. They also get donations from diners, including old toys from empty nesters and collections like a trove of Pez dispensers from the CEO of a Pez manufacturer, who stopped some years back while enrolling his daughter in college.
The result is a cornucopia of kitsch.
"When people come in, they go, 'Wow!'" Kim said. "For us, it's like more dust to clean."
But Briskie cleans the art collection weekly and Kim isn't as jaded as she sounds.
"We change it all the time," she said. "For us, this is living art, functioning art. We polish it, change it, take care of it."
And customers appreciate it.
"You can see it in people's eyes when they walk in," he said.
Briskie said much of the pop art has been stolen over the years, and they suspect college students and members of fraternities. Kim said even the salt and pepper shakers are pilfered.
"Whole mannequins disappear," Briskie said. "It took me a long time to give up the anger."
Kim sees the artwork and collectibles as a way to "inspire people" to come in for a meal that won't break their budgets. And it helps her bottom line. She said she rings up revenue of "a few million" dollars a year, has a waiting list as long as 45 minutes on weekends, and pays her staff of 30 so well that most employees have been with her for at least 10 years.
"It's a very good, steady job and they know it," she said. "They actually run (the restaurant). I'm only here to guide them. They get the concept (of) teamwork. They're very clear that your mistake is my mistake. If they can't get that concept, they can't be here."
A sign admonishes customers not to talk to the line cooks, because, "They bite."
But Nathaniel Parker didn't. He was positively sanguine. Parker, 30, is one of the few newbies. He said he was cooking at an International House of Pancakes on Liberty Road until last month, when Kim personally recruited him to Papermoon.
"It brought me to a better place," said the Randallstown resident.
In consultation with her staff, Kim plans much of the wildly divergent menu, which ranges from a Ham Den omelet to a Hella Portabella sandwich and a "moonshake" made with bacon and maple syrup, plus vegan and gluten-free options like a Tofu Scramble omelet and a salad with egg and prosciutto.
"We all sit down and talk about what people want and don't want," she said. "A lot of people stay away from fries."
Remington on the rise
Kim is a veteran restaurateur, with past eateries including the old Cleo's at 21st and Charles streets, Hammerstein, a delicatessen in Mount Vernon, Cafe on the Square, still located on Paca Street downtown under different ownership, and the upscale Ixia in the 500 block of Charles, which closed in 2009.
Her biggest donnybrook was a $1.5 million nightclub called Inferno that she planned to open near Papermoon in 2000, but never did, because of fierce opposition from some Remington residents, who worried about noise, traffic, drunken customers and drug-dealing. Some city officials also opposed the project, including then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, saying they preferred a restaurant to a nightclub.
The site is now Cresmont Lofts, an apartment building in the 2800 block of Cresmont Avenue.
The experience left Kim press-shy and angry at residents, who she said were resisting change in a neighborhood that needed it. She said this interview was her first since then and that she did not want her photo taken.
"My name was in the paper for a whole year," she said.
Kim and Briskie are proud that they opened Papermoon in the neighborhood and consider its success validation of their efforts. Kim said celebrities have come in to eat, but she wouldn't name names. She noted that people come in from around the world and that some 22,000 images of the iconic diner are accessible through the Internet search engine Google.
She and Briskie said they are seeing many second-generation diners, including former troublemakers, who were kicked out of Papermoon in their youths, now coming in to eat with their own children.
They are also intrigued and cautiously optimistic about recent development in Remington, including ongoing construction for Remington Row, Seawall Development Company's mixed-use project on Remington Avenue around the corner from Papermoon. The lead tenant will be Johns Hopkins Community Physicians — and the university is also planning to build a permanent day care facility in the area.
"This is not the Remington I bought (into) 22 years ago," Kim said.
They wonder, though, how long the boom will last, whether Remington has enough residents to support a lot of new development, and whether Remington's rise will come at the expense of other neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, Papermoon Diner, as a destination business with its own ample parking lot next door, remains an island unto itself.
"I keep doing what I'm doing," Kim said. "I'm in my own world."