City looking for new partners to run the Hollywood Diner

The Hollywood Diner was used as a set for Barry Levinson's classic film "Diner."
The Hollywood Diner was used as a set for Barry Levinson's classic film "Diner." (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun Photo)

After a brief hiatus, the Hollywood Diner is back in business — but the city has other plans for the downtown eatery.

Baltimore City, which owns the property, has terminated its lease with the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development, the nonprofit organization that has run the diner since 1991. In April, the comptroller's office will issue a request for proposals for a new operator of the property, made famous as a filming location for the Barry Levinson film "Diner."

"It is our goal to obtain an experienced restaurant operator that will provide quality, reasonably priced hot and cold food to the downtown patron," city Comptroller Joan M. Pratt said. "The operator will also be required to provide training for students with an emphasis on the food service and marketing."

The Chesapeake Center for Youth Development's current operating partner, Cheryl Townsend, will continue to run the restaurant through the end of March. Townsend took over the diner in March 2011 under an agreement with the center.

Funded entirely by private donations and opened to great fanfare in 1984 as the Kids' Diner, the restaurant was originally run by the city schools and the mayor's office as a job-training program for youths. It was leased to the youth center beginning in 1991. The nonprofit ran the restaurant until 2009, when it began working with a series of outsider operators, none of whom succeeded.

Although the diner lost money from the beginning, its proponents, chief among them former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, didn't expect otherwise. When it was first threatened with closure in 1996, Schaefer said that "the purpose of the diner was to train vocational-education kids."

Although the vocational mission has always been on the diner's menu, there is nothing on the lawbooks, according to Pratt, that compels the city to include job training as part of its request for proposals.

"It's something we want to do," Pratt said.

The diner, which was built on New York's Long Island, gained cinematic fame as the principal setting for Levinson's 1982 ensemble movie about a group of Baltimore guys on the verge of adulthood. The building was subsequently used as a set in other movies filmed in Baltimore and by Levinson again for scenes in "Tin Men" and "Liberty Heights."

The diner was purchased in 1982 by WBAL radio for $34,000 and donated to the city. Its remodeling was financed with nearly $1 million in cash raised by private donations.

Ivan Leshinsky, the executive director of the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development, said the nonprofit will be eligible to submit a proposal in April. "I would still love to be in there," Leshinsky said. "It's been a real challenge to find a partner to make it a viable business in this economy.

"You need someone with an incredible vision," Leshinsky said, "and with enough capital to stay with it through the years."