Scott and Cristina McKay went on their first date six years ago at the Bel-Loc Diner in Parkville. They shared their first kiss in the parking lot.
The couple, who live on Gittings Avenue nearby, sit at the bar every weekend for the pancakes, the split pea-and-ham soup and the wait staff that knows their names. They're not the oldest customers at the landmark Baltimore County establishment, but the big neon sign outside and the family atmosphere give them a sense of nostalgia nonetheless.
"We've been coming here ever since that first date," Cristina McKay, 26, said.
After 53 years, the popular diner at the corner of Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road served up its last plates of breakfast and lunch, its famous milkshakes and piping hot cups of coffee, and closed its doors for good on Sunday. Owner Bill Doxanas, 66, said he plans to retire, and the building will be razed and replaced by a Starbucks.
"Like anything, the time comes," he said. "It's been a good run for us."
In the standing-room-only restaurant Sunday, where some waited more than an hour for a table, Doxanas shook hands and smiled for photo after photo with regulars and former customers who came by to say goodbye. Each one thanked him — for the meals, the atmosphere, the memories.
Doxanas said he was touched so many people came back for the restaurant's last day. "It makes you feel wanted," he said.
Some wrote their names and phone numbers on a long list at the cash register, requesting to buy the Bel-Loc coffee mugs. One asked Doxanas if she could have one of the laminated menus. "Come back at 3, when we close, and I'll give you one," he told her. "I need them now."
Kevin Settimio told Doxanas he watched his son, Mario, grow up at the Bel-Loc.
The 56-year-old Baltimore property manager brought Mario there as an infant, putting him in a high chair at the end of a booth. As Mario got older, he graduated from baby food to "the best chicken fingers in the world," Settimio said. Settimio always got the steak special.
At age 6, Mario looked at the menu, then looked up at his father.
"Dad," he asked, "am I old enough to have the steak now?" Settimio called it "a defining moment."
"He ate all of his and half of mine — and he never went back to the chicken tenders after that," he said. "Now he's 15, and still eating steak."
Jason Gray, 34, of Parkville, has had only two jobs in his life: working in his family's window-tinting business and, before that, waiting tables at the Bel-Loc. He smiled for a selfie in a booth with his daughter, Autumn, 8, as they waited for their silver-dollar pancakes and eggs. Across the table, his wife, Barb, 38, watched their 20-month-old son, Camden, who was drawing with a blue crayon on the back of a receipt.
When Gray was his son's age, he said, his father used to work as a bouncer at the diner, clearing out unruly, late-night customers in the days when it was open all night. (It started closing at 3 p.m. in 2000.)
"I had a job promised to me when I was six," he said.
The best food item on the menu is hotly debated.
"Cream chipped beef on toast," Kris Ward, a 28-year-old Parkville firefighter, said without a moment's pause. A woman in line effusively agreed.
Pat Moorefield, 71, of Parkville, swears by the western omelet: "It's the best thing they make."
Angelina Nugent, 11, likes the chocolate-chip pancakes. Her brother, Laird, 9, got a doughnut, bacon, home fries and a milkshake on Sunday.
Their mother, Jennifer Nugent, works in the Baltimore County planning department and helped Doxanas through the process of selling the restaurant so he could retire.
"I've been coming here since I was their age," she said. "I know he struggled with it."
Carol Menning, 68, of Reisterstown, remembered a graduation lunch with her Notre Dame Preparatory School classmates in 1967 that seemed to last all day.
"It got to the point when I finally got home, and my parents said, 'Where the heck have you been all day?'" she said.
John Bowman, 98, a retired Social Security Administration analyst who lives in Waverly, is a longtime customer who visited the restaurant several days a week for lunch. He usually ordered one of the specials, like the chicken noodle soup and a sandwich. On Sunday, he had two eggs, ham, toast and sweet potato fries.
Starbucks is reportedly considering adding a sign similar to the Bel-Loc's well-known neon one, and hopes to add other touches to keep the feel of the old diner. Bowman doesn't have high hopes.
"It won't be the same atmosphere anymore," he said.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger was among the throng that filled the restaurant Sunday. The restaurant's everyman appeal made it a cornerstone not just of its Parkville neighborhood, but a legendary Baltimore diner, he said.
"I'll see people from all walks of life come here," he said. "When I was in high school, my parents used to come here. This was just a meeting place."