As its final day approaches, business continues to buzz at landmark Bel-Loc Diner

As its final day approaches, business continues to buzz at landmark Bel-Loc Diner

During the final days of the Bel-Loc Diner, it has been business as usual.

Longtime employee Jean Bell still greets guests at the door and waitresses still run plates with fresh biscuits, made-from-scratch soups and rice pudding out to customers.

Regular customers — including one long-timer who, on the night before his wedding in 1976, came to the diner, stood on a table and sang "Get Me to the Church on Time" — still come in for meals, and owner Bill Doxanas is still chatting with them and his staff, as he oversees the last days of what many consider an institution at the corner of Loch Raven Boulevard and East Joppa Road.

The diner's last day in operation will be Sunday, March 26. It is closing after 53 years in business. Doxanas, whose family helped open the restaurant, is closing it because he wants to retire.

"Age has got me," said Doxanas, 66, who wakes at 4 a.m. daily to come work. "It's time to go."

Last week, the Seattle-based Starbucks confirmed its plan to open a coffee shop at the Bel-Loc site. And while historical building advocates have lamented the proposed demolition of the building, Doxanas says keeping the diner isn't feasible.

"I'm honored but it doesn't make sense," Doxanas said.

Starbucks will continue the Bel-Loc legacy, he said, adding that the proposed coffee shop will include a likeness of the diner's iconic neon "Bel-Loc" sign on its new building. Bel-Loc refers to the nearby Baltimore beltway and Loch Raven Boulevard.

The public perception about the deal with Starbucks is that the Seattle giant is forcing him off the corner, Doxanas said, adding that the truth is the opposite. He contacted representatives of the company through a friend in the real estate business, to see if they were interested in building a shop at the site.

"They're good people," Doxanas said of Starbucks, adding that he will continue to own the property and lease it to Starbucks in a deal that is still being worked out.

Busy in the dead of night

Doxanas has worked at the diner from the beginning, in 1964, at age 13 bussing tables and doing whatever else his father, Tom Doxanas, asked of him. The diner was started by his dad and a business partner, John Fangikis.

Bill Doxanas went to college with no intention of returning to the diner, but had a change of heart and decided to take over operations of the Bel-Loc, which he has now run for more than four decades.

"It was a good decision," he said, adding that the people he has worked with and the customers who frequent the diner are what makes it a special place.

The diner's heyday was when it was open 24-hours a day, Doxanas said. Customers used to drop in late at night after drinking at bars for conversation, food and coffee to sober up.

Those late night shifts were energetic, Doxanas said. Bouncers and bartenders would also come to the Bel-Loc, and the restaurant was busiest in the dead of night.

The rise of drunken driving as a taboo — and rightfully so — led to a decline in that late-night business and in 2000 the diner stopped operating 24-hours a day, Doxanas said, adding that the rise of fast-casual eateries and drive-through restaurants have also taken a chunk out of his business.

On the morning of March 16, one of Doxanas's longtime customers and friends, Jim Slevin, of Timonium, visited Doxanas, who he calls "Dox," at the diner. Slevin ordered coffee and a bowl of oatmeal with brown sugar and strawberries on the side.

He met Doxanas on a golf course in 1980, but remembers frequenting the Bel-Loc before then. On his wedding day, in October 1976, he spent the early morning hours in the diner after a night of drinking. He stood on a table and sang "Get me to the Church on Time," a song from the 1956 musical "My Fair Lady," the lyrics of which include the refrain, "I'm getting married in the morning."

"Fortunately, I wasn't getting married until 5 o'clock," in the evening, Slevin said.

'Sorry to see it go'

Slevin's memories are similar to those held by other diners who came in for a meal at the Bel-Loc on March 16.

Mimi Parvis, of Anneslie, said that she used to come to the diner late at night for a period of about seven years, in the early 1990s, when she and friends would walk to the restaurant from a nearby club called Rascals.

The diner at night was fun, Parvis said.

She took a hiatus as a Bel-Loc customer after that period. But since Doxanas announced last year that the diner would eventually close, she has been coming in once a week, she said. On March 16, she ordered two eggs, two biscuits, bacon and a hot tea.

"I'm going to be sorry to see it go," Parvis said, adding that she is disappointed that the property isn't registered as a historic landmark.

On the same day, Chuck Schauber, of Rodgers Forge, ordered a cup of split pea soup, with croutons on the side, and a tuna salad sandwich on wheat. Schauber said he has been frequenting the diner since he was in his 20s. He is 67.

Schauber said he used to come to the diner after drinking at clubs; now he comes for lunch three or four times a week. The diner hasn't changed for the most part, he said. He likens the place to the local bar in the popular television series, "Cheers" — a comfortable place where the food is always good.

"But I guess time marches on," he said.

Waitress Stephanie Callander, who has worked at the diner for 10 years, calls its closing "the end of an era." She adds, though, that customers shouldn't be sad that the restaurant is closing. Instead, they should be happy that Doxanas can retire.

What the future holds

Once the diner closes, the plan is to demolish the Bel-Loc building and build a new structure that will become a Stabucks coffee shop, Doxanas said.

Plans for the new Starbucks include a drive-through, which has concerned some neighboring residents, as the intersection of Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road has been classified as failing by the county government, meaning cars waiting at the traffic light at the intersection frequently do not make it through in one green light cycle.

There is a movement to save the diner building by historic building preservation groups the Preservation Alliance of Baltimore County and Preservation Maryland. Officials from both groups said they have asked Starbucks to consider reusing the building rather than demolishing it. Both groups are still seeking that outcome.

"We think there is a feasible way to pull this thing off and we'd like the chance to analyze that if we can," Preservation Alliance of Baltimore County President Tim Bishop said.

Brian Fischer, a board member of the Preservation Alliance of Baltimore County, said that the diner should be preserved because it is one of the few historic structures in that part of the Loch Raven Boulevard corridor.

Starbucks officials did not answer questions about whether the company has considered proposals to reuse Bel-Loc building, saying that no additional details on the project are available.

While preservationists have used the county's landmark designation process to protect structures in the past, in this case the local group did not do so because they lacked the political support required, as landmark nominations are ultimately approved by the County Council, according to Fischer.

County Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson, said he had an "open mind" about making the Bel-Loc an official historic landmark, but didn't think the designation would pass its first test before the county's Landmarks Preservation Commission, a panel of history and architecture experts.

Marks said he feels a good compromise was reached on the design of the proposed Starbucks, including the proposal to feature the diner's neon sign as part of the coffee shop. The design faced additional scrutiny because the project falls within the Loch Raven Commercial Revitalization District, an area in which new construction is subject to the review of a panel of architecture and design experts called the Design Review Panel.

The commercial revitalization area exists because that area is distressed, according to Marks. The district gives businesses an opportunity to use tax credits, grants, a loan program and an on-call architect to make improvements.

Jason Garber, president of the Loch Raven Village Association, said he believes the addition of the Starbucks will be a positive step toward the revitalization of the corridor.

After March 26, Doxanas will donate or sell the restaurant's contents, he said, though he and his family will keep a few pieces, such as the large logo of a waitress carrying a tray of food that is printed on tile inside the diner.

On March 16, when a longtime customer inquired about purchasing a mug from the diner, Doxanas turned a blind eye.

"Just steal it," he said.

This story has been updated.

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