By David Sturm firstname.lastname@example.org
9:20 AM EDT, April 24, 2013
Not only is Patsy Cline's 1962 hit "Crazy" among the choices on the little jukeboxes perched on the wall at the Bel-Loc Diner's booths, the country singer with the smooth, sultry voice once ate there.
So have singer Brenda Lee and comedian Redd Foxx. The Baltimore Colts legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas was known to drop in as well, and Orioles "Iron Man" Cal Ripken Jr. once graciously signed autographs during a meal.
"He (Ripken) tipped pretty well," waitress Rachel Fisher recalled.
But celebrity spotting is not what the Bel-Loc is about. Customers come for the omelets and blueberry pancakes, but also to see friends, neighbors and relatives.
In fact, "family" is the word most often used by staff and customers to explain the vibe at the eatery that has been an enduring presence at the northeast corner of Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road for 49 years.
"I have seen three or four generations of a family come in," owner Bill Doxanas said.
Changes have happened over the years — the hard-to-keep-clean Tiffany chandeliers are long gone while the original terrazzo floors and vast expanse of windows remain.
An even bigger change began at the turn of the century when the 24-hour operation ended, and the diner went to a 6 a.m.-to-11 p.m. schedule. A few months ago, that was reduced to 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
"It's just easier to operate one shift," Doxanas said.
At age 62, the owner has begun to think of retirement and working on his golf game. When it happens, it will be the end of an era because Doxanas has been involved with the Bel-Loc since the beginning.
The Bel-Loc was the fourth of four diners built and operated by Thomas Doxanas, Bill's father, and his partners. The first three were Baltimore's original Double-T Diners, but the one that opened in 1964, soon after the Beltway interchange was built just to the north, became Bel-Loc from a combination of "Beltway" and "Loch Raven."
Doxanas helped build it when he was just 14.
"My brother and I were just laborers, lifting the cinder blocks," he said.
After it opened, he and his brother, Marcos Doxanas, worked as bus boys.
Did he enjoy doing that?
"No," he said.
After graduating from Roanoke College in 1972, Bill Doxanas spent time in Ocean City as a bartender, but returned to work at the Bel-Loc a few years before his father retired. Bill has been there ever since.
Lessons learned over the years, he said, were not only what to offer customers, but also not to get too ambitious. The Bel-Loc has never had a liquor license or a television set. It has a thriving carryout business, but no drive-through. Seating and parking (37 spaces) are limited, so large parties are a problem.
The key is quality control and a taking labor-intensive approach. The hands-on Doxanas cuts his own pork chops, roasts turkey breasts and makes home fries out of whole Idaho potatoes he boils, peels and cooks.
By applying the hours of labor necessary to cook from scratch, he keeps quality up and expenses down, he said. This, he added, gives him the edge he needs to compete with many chains in his market.
One concession to time means that pies are no longer made in house and are now supplied by Yia Yia's Bakery in Rosedale.
But it's not just what's on the plate that appeals to the Bel-Loc faithful, it's the people. Employees, including kitchen help that boasts careers of more than 30 years, are part of close-knit relationships fostered during Doxanas' tenure. At the front register is Jean Bell, who has worked for the Doxanas family for 56 years.
One of the restaurant's current 35 employees, Rachel Fisher, has been serving Bel-Loc customers for 16 years. She began working as a hostess at age 13. She said working there has made her more outgoing.
"I used to be really shy. This place makes you develop a personality. You learn how to deal with a variety of people," said Fisher, whose mother, Linda Dawson, and sisters, Danielle Dawson and Lauren Fisher, have also been part of the Bel-Loc crew.
Fisher said she once tried working for a law firm and hated it. Even though it means wearing out a pair of $140 shoes every two months, she'll take the Bel-Loc and the long hours on her feet.
"I don't mind waking up at 5 o'clock and coming in," she said. "It's like my home."
Kathy Arle, a regular customer since the Bel-Loc opened, likes to arrive in mid-morning before the noon rush.
"When it gets crowded for lunch, I'm leaving," she said.
She usually brings something to read. A fan of Scandinavian crime fiction, her companion on a recent visit was "Firewall," by Henning Mankell, to go with a bagel sandwich.
"I like the company here. Everyone is so nice," she said. "It's not McDonald's."
Leon Smith came to the Bel-Loc with his brother-in-law and snagged a job in the kitchen. That was seven years ago; he has been there ever since, now working as a bus boy or wherever he's needed.
"He's a hustler," Fisher said with a grin.
Smith said there is no typical day and no typical customer.
"Anything can happen any day," he said. "If you are not a people-person, this is not the job for you."
Although the Bel-Loc is considered by many to be a Baltimore landmark and an authentic slice of Americana, Doxanas said it has no official status as a historic building.
Still, some fans of old-style diners come from as far as the West Coast to check it out. Business surged after it was named one of the South's best diners by Southern Living magazine in November 2009.
Smith said she has no plans to leave her waitress job. The appeal, she said, is the constant stimulation from the people she works with and the customers she serves.
"There's laughs, there's drama," she said.
And, hopefully, there will always be a Bel-Loc.