The 1700 block of North Charles Street, home to such institutions as the Club Charles and Charles Theater, is a logical home for a place like Lost City Diner. Its quirky atmosphere, friendly service and likable (if sometimes average) food are likely to make it a hit.
The restaurant opened in August 2011 but closed only a few months later, in January 2012, for "kitchen renovations." It finally reopened, with a new owner, on April first of this year.
On a recent Wednesday evening, the diner was nearly empty at 6:30, but packed by 7:30.
Scene Renovations may have occurred in the kitchen, but Lost City retained its much-loved look in the dining room, which is an ode to the science fiction-meets-comic book aesthetic popularized in the 1930s. The small space includes a rocket ship, impressive Art Deco-style light fixtures, and oversized comic book art. For serious enthusiasts (and kids), comic books are available to read.
Appetizer We started with an order of "Saturn Rings" ($6.29), spheres of neatly beer-battered onion. They were blazing hot, crispy and sweet, just as onion rings should be. The rings themselves weren't seasoned, but a tangy-spicy dipping sauce kept them from being bland.
Choosing entrees proved difficult. Like all good diners, Lost City boasts an expansive menu covering many sandwich, entree and breakfast bases. Plus, Lost City offers a ton of vegetarian and vegan options.
Entree We quizzed the super-friendly waitress to narrow down our choices, settling on a couple of sandwiches: the Monte Cristo and grilled peanut butter and jelly.
The tasty Monte Cristo ($10.49) earned its billing as the diner's "most popular sandwich," but proved more than even our big appetites could handle. Ham, turkey and Swiss cheese were stacked so high between two slices of cornflake-crusted, sugar-dusted French toast that we nearly had to unhinge our jaws to take a bite.
For dipping, syrupy raspberry jelly made a sweet counterpoint to the crunchy, meaty sandwich.
On the waitress's recommendation, we added bacon to the grilled PB&J; ($9.29 with fries). Unfortunately, the sandwich didn't quite live up to our expectations.
It tasted fine, but we imagined something more exciting than a messier version of a toasted peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich. Surprisingly, the bacon's crunch and salt somehow got lost in the mix; instead of delivering an extra punch of flavor and texture, it just added more calories.
Plus, we spent so much time (and so many napkins) cleaning melted peanut butter off our fingers that we couldn't finish both halves of the sandwich. Gloppy is often good, but in this case, it was too much. A little less peanut butter — and a little more bacon — would have done the sandwich a world of good.
A side order of crinkle fries was also forgettable: under seasoned and droopy. Not terrible, but not terribly great.
Lost City is BYOB, but its list of soda fountain drinks and milkshakes makes up for the menu's lack of specialty cocktails. A Mango Fizz ($3.49) — mango juice mixed with seltzer — was light and enjoyable. A creamsicle milkshake ($5.79; $8.49 for nondairy) also felt like a light and airy treat, which was surprising, considering its layers of milk and ice cream.
Service Throughout dinner, our waitress was friendly and helpful, but as the only waitress, she was also busy. The single guy behind the counter handling ice cream was, too; though our food arrived in a timely manner, everything from the ice cream bar was delayed.
Dessert That included a tin roof sundae ($5.79), which arrived at least 15 minutes after we ordered. The sundae was a classic combination of vanilla ice cream, fudge sauce and wet nuts (vegan ice cream and nuts were also options). It was tasty, and our waitress apologized and explained, but by the time we dug in, we were well past full.
Lost City will no doubt be a big success with people hitting one of the block's theaters or clubs — and with sci-fi comic book lovers from all over. For many of those diners, a lengthy wait for a sundae or an underwhelming PB&J; won't matter.
Bottom line But everyone else should keep their expectations in check. While not exceptional, the food is pretty good and the service is friendly. Order a shake, grab a comic and enjoy the rocket ship ride.
Back story: Originally opened in August 2011 by Club Charles owner Joy Martin, but unceremoniously shuttered in January 2012, Lost City Diner reopened on April Fool's Day this year (now under the ownership of John Rutoskey). Lost City, which relies on cheekily named classic diner food and ice cream treats, is a comic-lover's dream, with walls lined with comic book covers and decor straight out of the Art Deco era.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: Lost City's Monte Cristo is an impressive and hefty sandwich. Piles of Swiss cheese, ham and turkey are tucked between slices of cornflake-crusted French toast. Dipped in sweet-tart raspberry jelly, each bite is crunchy, salty, sweet and filling.
Where: 1730 N. Charles St., Baltimore 21201
Open: During the summer, open 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; 5 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 12 a.m. Sunday; During the winter open 7 days a week and until 3 a.m. on weekends
Credit Cards: All major
Reservations: No reservations but call ahead for parties of 6 or more
Rating: 2 stars
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]