As Baltimore's diners disappear, owners shift to remain relevant

The Bel-Loc Diner in Parkville may become the area's latest diner to close. Meanwhile, a new generation of diner owners is exploring ways to appeal to modern patrons.

In its heyday in the 1960s and '70s, the 24-hour Bel-Loc Diner in Parkville was the place to go after high school dances or a night at the now-defunct Club Venus, Rascals or Golden Horn.

"Fifty years ago, everybody in the neighborhood came here," said owner Bill Doxanas, 65. "Now, there are a hundred more places than there used to be. There's so much competition."


The lure of chain restaurants, convenience stores and drive-through lanes at fast-food restaurants cut into his diner business.

Now the diner's last days are on the horizon. Starbucks has submitted plans to build a coffee shop and drive-through on the property, and Bel-Loc may join the ranks of shuttered community fixtures like Ellicott City's Forest Diner, Aberdeen's New Ideal Diner and the Bridge Diner in Havre de Grace.

Diners are on the decline nationally, too, according to Daniel Zilka, a diner historian and restoration specialist with the nonprofit American Diner Heritage. There were once 5,000 to 6,000 diners in the country, but that number has dwindled to 2,500 or less, he said.

But even as some succumb to the challenges of aging structures and shrinking customer bases, diner owners are making shifts to keep their restaurants relevant and finding new uses for the historic structures. The Towson Diner and the 14-restaurant Silver Diner have updated the menus with better ingredients and more healthful options. Meanwhile, the famed Hollywood Diner is being repurposed as the centerpiece of a food truck park, and the closed Fallston Diner is now a Plaza Mexico restaurant.

"I don't think diners are going anywhere soon," said Annika Stensson, director of research communications at the National Restaurant Association. "There's definitely room for diners in the dining landscape today."

Customers like Bob Kondner of Towson think so, too. The self-employed electronics engineer has been a regular at the Bel-Loc diner for about 15 years. For breakfast, he orders two eggs over easy, sausage and fruit — real fruit, not canned, he said.

For lunch, he praises the specials, especially the stuffed pork chop with sage dressing.

"One time, they had a bunch left over, and I put them in my freezer," he said. "This place is the best. When it closes, I will cry."

Etched glass with the Bel-Loc Diner's logo divides the booths. Ed McFarland of Parkville, right, has been coming to the diner for 15 years.
Etched glass with the Bel-Loc Diner's logo divides the booths. Ed McFarland of Parkville, right, has been coming to the diner for 15 years. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Doxanas has been involved in Bel-Loc — named for the nearby Beltway and Loch Raven Boulevard — since his father, Thomas Doxanas, started the diner in 1964.

Thomas Doxanas also founded the Double T Diner in the mid-1950s with Tony Papadis, named after the initials of the men's first names. The diner chain is now owned by the Korologos brothers.

"I'm always happy to see Double Ts open up," Bill Doxanas said of the Maryland chain with eight locations. "They have a lot of family involved, and they have the next generation coming in."

Doxanas, who didn't marry and has no children, doesn't have any family members interested in continuing the diner. His day starts at 5 a.m., and he does a lot of the cooking.

"I'm burned out," he said. "It's seven days a week."

The Baltimore Sun Media Group has previously reported on the potential Starbucks sale, but Doxanas declined to comment on the sale negotiations for this article.


Daniel Zilka bemoans the fate of diners like Bel-Loc. People would rather go to a drive-through and eat in their cars instead of socializing at a diner, he said. "They're becoming irrelevant.

"A lot of people don't see diners as artifacts of history," he said. "Once they are torn down, you can't replace them. They tell the story of the community."

Diners started as lunch wagons in the 1880s before becoming permanent fixtures, adapting the look of railroad dining cars in the 1920s.

As populations shifted to the suburbs in the 1950s, diners sported stainless-steel exteriors to attract passing motorists, according to the American Diner Heritage (formerly American Diner Museum) website.

During the 1970s and '80s, there was a renewed interest in diners, with manufacturers building retro-looking structures to include neon and bold colors. Silver Diner, founded by Robert Giaimo and chef Ype Von Hengst in 1989 in Rockville, capitalized on the trend.

But Silver Diner saw its fortunes crumbling as sales declined in the 2000s. It closed its diner at Towson Town Center about 13 years ago when parking became a problem, Von Hengst said.

"We saw our population aging," said Von Hengst. "We were not attracting families. It was time to reinvent ourselves."

The company found that people wanted better and healthier food, and Silver Diner complied. They still make the diner food that people crave but with better ingredients, like black Angus beef for the meatloaf, local farm-raised poultry for turkey platters and healthful options like quinoa pancakes.

"If you want to eat old-fashioned items, I make them better and healthier from what they used to be," said Von Hengst. "If I have all these choices, I don't lose anyone."

Silver Diner didn't forget kids either, removing french fries, home fries and sodas from the children's menu and adding sides like fruit, mixed vegetables and salads.

Sales are up 45 percent, Von Hengst said. "The success of Silver Diner in the last seven to eight years is that we have done an evolution of the concept," he said. "We have gone to farm-to-table, vegetarian, gluten-free, all those things."

The company is growing, opening its newest Silver Diner in Frederick a few weeks ago. "We want to keep expanding in this area," Von Hengst said. "We might come to Baltimore again. We're looking at a couple of locations."

Towson Diner has seen a similar renaissance. It's still going strong after almost 60 years, drawing diners of all ages to the gleaming silver restaurant with retro booths, tables with jukeboxes and spotless counters.

Next year the Towson Diner will be celebrate 60 years of service to the community. Nick Kourtsounis took over the business from his father and his uncle three years ago and has updated the menu and the decor. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)

They feast on hot turkey sandwiches, cheeseburgers and milkshakes at the 24-hour diner. Breakfast, served all day, is the most popular meal, said Nick Kourtsounis, 35, who took over three years ago from his father, Sam, who still works there, and his uncle, Pete.

"Diners are a niche, a generational thing," said Kourtsounis, a former Maryland state trooper. "But now kids go with their parents."

The diner's chef of 15 years, Armando Villanueva, keeps food allergies, gluten intolerance and other dietary concerns in mind when he plans items for the 10-page menu.

In addition to more healthful food, Kourtsounis is making decor changes to keep the diner fresh.

Nick Kourtsounis, 35, took over the Towson Diner from his father, Sam, and uncle, Pete, three years ago.
Nick Kourtsounis, 35, took over the Towson Diner from his father, Sam, and uncle, Pete, three years ago. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

"I want a shiny look," he said. "I want a homier feel as well."

If any diner stirs nostalgia among Baltimoreans of a certain age, it's the Hollywood Diner, which gained fame in the 1982 movie, "Diner." The city-owned diner has been sitting on a forlorn site near City Hall for almost 30 years, operating under different proprietors. After several up and downs, it finally closed its doors in 2013. But that wasn't its curtain call.

Last fall, Damian Bohager — founder of The Gathering Project, an endeavor that supports Baltimore food trucks and raises money for local nonprofits — resurrected the Hollywood Diner in a different role.

It will serve as a centerpiece for what Bohager says is Baltimore's first food truck park. After a brief start last year, the project was waylaid by the holidays and winter weather. Now, with a lease recently approved by the city, Bohager plans to move forward with the food truck park and possibly a food court manned by local restaurants.


The Hollywood Diner, minus a full kitchen, will serve as an eating area for diners who can settle into refurbished booths that once were a refuge for the "Diner" movie characters Boogie, Fenwick and Shrevie as they hashed out the Baltimore Colts, girlfriends and life.

"It's in great condition," Bohager said of the diner. "There's great potential."

Diners may once again play a starring role in our lives.