The Star Light Diner, located in the enormous Reisterstown Shopping Center, is really two restaurants in one - a diner and a bar.
The two are connected, though they have separate entrances. Both serve the same food, but the bar allows smoking.
The diner side strives for a '50s feel, with chrome fixtures, framed Life magazine covers on the walls, cozy booths and a counter with spinning stools. The pub, known as Star Light Station (or Star Light Statio, as the seen-better-days sign above the door has it), is darker, of course, and smokier. It has murals of the nighttime New York skyline along one wall and offers live music or karaoke most nights.
We stuck to the diner, which, like the sign above the bar-side entrance, looked as though it had seen better days. The '50s ambience probably lost its sparkle about the time the ceiling acquired its water stains.
Still, diners aren't always stunning to look at, and sometimes the most rundown ones are the most terrific. Any place serving up chipped beef and gyros alongside cheese blintzes and roast sirloin deserves a chance. I wanted to be dazzled by Star Light, and, sometimes, I was.
Dazzler No. 1 was the astonishingly good jumbo-sized crab cake, enormous sweet lumps of meat held together with nothing but love, it seemed. In a nice variation from the crab-cake norm, this golden-crusted patty packed some real cayenne heat, which set off sparks that nicely offset the sweetness of the crab.
An open-faced turkey sandwich with a side of mashed potatoes was everything you want in such a meal. The turkey was hot and fresh, mounded on slices of white bread, the gravy thick, silky-smooth and plentiful, and the ice-cream-scoop-shaped mound of potatoes soft and lump-free.
Burgers and fries were infinitely gobble-worthy. The fries arrived sizzling hot and plenty salty, and the burger was large and simply prepared, if a touch dry. French toast boasted a nice tingle of cinnamon that lifted the thin slices of eggy bread beyond the banal.
But any diner worth its salt shaker ought to produce a decent vanilla milkshake, and Star Light failed this very basic requirement. First, we were told there was no vanilla ice cream for milkshakes. Then we were told there was no chocolate. Or strawberry.
Our only choices were orange sherbet or cookies and cream, so we got one of each. The orange milkshake was OK in a children's-aspirin-flavored kind of way, but the cookies and cream shake was far too thin, so watery it could easily be sipped through a straw.
I also found it disturbing that the back of the menu boasts a City Paper rave of Star Light - it's referring to the now-defunct Starlight Diner in Essex, not related at all to the one in Reisterstown.
Service, too, had its flaws, but maybe that's because our young waitress was new to the job. We didn't get "hon"-ed once, a major disappointment in a Baltimore-area diner. But more to the point, the French toast arrived about 10 minutes later than our other entrees - an especially major no-no because this was a child's entree. Diner employees are supposed to know that kids always eat first.
My crab cake arrived on a bare plate, with the side of vegetables appearing about halfway through the meal. The diced carrots and kernels of corn gave every indication that they had started the evening in a food-service bag in the freezer and then spent some quality time in a microwave, especially because the mound of veggies wasn't warm all the way through.
Both the menu and the sign above the diner door promised fresh-baked desserts, but we were fairly confident what we saw had been purchased, unless Star Light is somehow making its own Yodels and wrapping them in plastic, or placing frosted sugar cookies in plastic supermarket boxes before putting them in the display case.
To our server's credit, though, she took the kids in our party over to the dessert display so they could each pick out a favorite cookie, which came with the kids' meal.
A few desserts, including a light and tangy cheesecake, came from outside vendors.
Star Light Diner
Where: 11929 Reisterstown Road, Reisterstown
Open: Daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Credit cards: All major
Prices: Appetizers $1.95-$5.95, entrees $5.50-$19.95
Food: *** (3 STARS)
Service: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)
Atmosphere: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)