The Forest Diner has left the county.
Decades after serving its first bacon and eggs on U.S. 40, the Ellicott City landmark was lifted recently onto a flatbed truck and hauled away to be restored for its next life, although it's not clear where that next life might be.
The sign standing above National Pike still says "Forest Diner," but the movable type below says "Coming Soon!" and gives a phone number to call if you want to lease space in the mixed retail and apartment project now being built there. Where the diner stood, the putty-colored ground inside the fenced construction site is smooth, and farther back, an earth mover sits amid sections of pipe to be installed underground.
The diner is "with a company in Virginia that restores diners and sells them," said Donald Reuwer Jr., the manager for Forest Venture II LLC, a group of local developers who bought the diner and the land to build a project that will include a combination of stores and apartments. He said part of the agreement with the company is that he cannot say where in Virginia it is.
He said the Virginia company specializes in restoring these structures and will get this one in shape for a buyer. Reuwer still says he'd like to see the diner come back to Howard County, where it stood since at least the 1950s, but he's not sure how that would happen.
"It probably depends on whether somebody wants it, has a place to put it," said Reuwer, who works for Land Design & Development Inc. of Ellicott City.
The original diner core is a fine example of the small, prefabricated, movable diners that became a prevalent part of American road culture soon after World War II. Built by the Paterson Vehicle Co. in New Jersey with lots of stainless steel and glass, the original diner seated about 40 people at the counter and in several booths.
Eventually, the whole thing was encased in an addition that about doubled the seating capacity but also hid the original structure. After the restaurant closed at the end of May, the owner peeled away the surrounding shell, revealing the original.
Preservation Howard County recognized the Forest Diner's value by twice placing it on its annual list of "Top Ten Endangered Sites." Lisa Mason Chaney, the executive director of the Howard County Historical Society, has called the diner "an icon" for Ellicott City and the county, not unlike the old Enchanted Forest theme park, right across National Pike.
Its significance as an emblem of a time and place is one thing, however; its value as a potential business is another.
Because it's so small, Reuwer said, it's hard to imagine it being returned to Howard County as a conventional diner, given the dominance of such larger establishments as the Double T, with two restaurants on U.S. 40, one next to the Forest Diner site. He wonders whether it might not work as a diner in a smaller community, or in Howard as a "boutique" eating establishment.
"I'm hopeful somebody will step forward" to give the diner a home back in the county, he said.
Meanwhile, back among the Forest Diner's former regular customers and staff, there are mixed feelings about seeing it hauled away in the last days of August. A work crew spent part of a day lifting it onto the truck, and the next day it rolled onto National Pike.
"It was a bittersweet sight," said Brian Reich, whose father, William, bought the diner in 1996. "Sad to see it go. At least it is going to be fixed up and restored to its past glory."
Brian Reich owns Jilly's, a sports bar and restaurant across National Pike from the Forest Diner. Since the diner closed, it has become the new workplace for the diner staff and new haunt for many of its regular customers.
Ellen Jackson, who worked at the diner since 1994, said she was driving along National Pike when she spotted the work crew loading the diner onto the truck, and "I drove on down the road a little teary-eyed."
Rich Dietrich, a steady breakfast customer since 1969, was there to see the moving crew at work, and he and other customers took pictures to document the process. There was lots of talk among customers and staff at Jilly's counter about it, he said.
"In one way, they were kind of relieved" to see the diner go, he said. "It was looking so sad sitting there."