A puzzle occupies the minds of the regulars at the Forest Diner on U.S. 40: If you decided that Ellicott City needed another diner, why would you put it smack dab beside their community landmark, which has been there at least four decades?
Whatever the reason, many fear that trouble could be brewing, along with the fresh, hot coffee, at this mainstay on Baltimore National Pike.
"They already have a diner here," says Sue Breidenstein of Ellicott City, who with her husband, Bud, has eaten breakfast at the Forest Diner for 38 years. "Why have another one there? It doesn't make any sense."
Adds her friend Doris Brooks, also of Ellicott City who has been a customer for 30 years: "I think it's arrogant."
Speculation abounds: Some wonder whether the owner of a nearby restaurant is buying the Forest Diner and moving it.
Others theorize that the Forest Diner's owner, Carl Childress, is closing the diner.
Childress did not return repeated telephone requests for an interview, but Manager Freida Johnson denies all the whispers.
"We are not going to close," she says firmly. "We are far from that situation. The owner is not going to worry about that other diner. We're very content right now."
The owner of the new Princess Diner, Michael Stavlas, says he's not trying to drive the Forest Diner out of business.
"I don't have anything against them," says Stavlas, who also owns the Timbuktu restaurant in Hanover.
"I just don't think they can serve a growing area. There's enough business for the both of us," Savlas says.
A few Forest Diner customers agree.
"On Saturdays and Sundays, you can't get in," says Ron Lanyi of Ellicott City, a customer since 1960. "I think we need another diner in the area."
The two diners are models in contrast.
The Forest Diner, with its Formica counter and red stools in the train-car-style central eating area, offers an atmosphere that many older customers say reminds them of the diners of their youth.
A site-development plan for the Princess Diner -- which should open in a few weeks -- calls for a traditional shiny stainless-steel look.
The new, 6,521-square-foot eatery will double the seating of the Forest Diner and stay open 24 hours. The Forest Diner closes at 10 p.m. daily except Mondays and Tuesdays, when it closes at 2 p.m.
Barbara Carroll, a waitress who has worked at the Forest Diner for 29 years, says the restaurant began during the 1940s as Gearhart's Diner. It changed owners and names in 1957.
Donald Parsons of Columbia says the popular diner was well-known.
"If you had to meet someone somewhere, all you had to say was Forest Diner, and everyone would know where to go," says Parsons, who has frequented the eatery for 20 years.
The diner has been the site of two commercials and even a "Homicide" episode with Lily Tomlin a few years back.
Carroll says Stavlas could have opened any other business next door.
"But not a diner," she says. "That bothers me. I mean, this is my life. I've worked here for 29 years. What am I going to do if it closes?"
Some patrons blame county zoning officials for giving Stavlas the permit to build the diner, but Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, dismisses the accusations.
"Restaurants are a permitted use in a commercial district," he says.
"The fact that they chose to do a diner on that site is out of my hands," Rutter said. "We wouldn't want to be in the position of controlling competition, anyway."
Most of the Forest Diner's customers eating breakfast on a recent morning said they would be heartbroken if the restaurant closed, explaining that they would miss the friendly service.
"They know us, and they know our cars," says a relative newcomer, Ellicott City resident Hans Vermeulen, who has eaten at the restaurant since December with his wife, Willie Mae.
"When we walk in, our coffee and orange juice are already on the table."
As if to prove the point, waitress Joanne Moulthrop delivers a card from all of the employees to Edward Mikulich, whose first grandchild was born two Sundays ago.
"That kind of stuff makes you feel good," says Mikulich, an Ellicott City resident who has eaten at the diner for 25 years. "It shows you what kind of diner this is."
Keith Smith, in a booth with his father, Calvin, and his older brother, Kevin, spends a few moments contemplating life without the Forest Diner.
"I'd stop eating breakfast," he says.
Pub Date: 5/17/98