Thursday 24 Apr 2014

The Hollywood Diner

How often do you get to eat in an actual filming set? The diner used in Barry Levinson’s 1982 movie — that now stands at 400 E. Saratoga Street — serves excellent fare Monday through Friday 7a.m. to 5 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

The star of Diner and Tin Men was built on Long Island. It has always been a real diner and was operating in New Jersey before Levinson bought it at auction for Diner.

Charlie Mewshaw, the general manager of Crema Coffee Company at the Hollywood Diner, says that the diner opened a new chapter of its lengthy history in August, 2009. That’s when Terry Jett, owner of the Crema Coffee Company took over the Hollywood Diner. The city still owns the building which was donated to Baltimore by Barry Levinson when he completed the filming of Diner.

I wanted to sit in the same booth in which Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) and Shrevie (Bill Stern), Modell (Paul Reiser) and Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) sat.

The Diner guys (left to right): Tim Daly, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern. Kevin Bacon, Steve Guttenberg, Paul Reiser

“You gonna’ finish that?” Modell repeatedly asked Eddie about to his roast beef sandwich.

The Hollywood Diner does serve a roast beef sandwich. Called the “Saratoga,” it sounded tempting: dry-aged Black Angus roast beef, cheddar, horseradish mayo and mesclun on a baguette for $6.75.

Since the Hollywood Diner’s chef, Kevin Roberts, described how he rubs seasoning inside and out of a turkey before he smokes it for up to three hours, I had the “Smokestack.” House smoked turkey breast, chipotle mayo, smoked Gouda, thick sliced bacon and romaine on a baguette for $6.95.

Served with homemade potato chips, the sandwich was one of the best I have eaten on my jaunts around town sampling food for Welcome to Baltimore, Hon! The slices of turkey were ample, the homemade sauce, tangy and the baguette was fresh with a crunchy crust.

My companion and I ordered the large serving of fries — plain — to split between us for $3.95. They didn’t need a thing! They were crisp on the outside, tender inside and well seasoned. The serving was so large; we couldn’t finish them.

Mewshaw told me that it takes twenty-four to forty-eight hours to make a batch of French fries or potato chips.

“Everything is made fresh, here. We cut the French fries and potato chips by hand, soak them in water to get rid of the starch and blanch them by cooking them at a low temperature before we store them in the refrigerator,” he said. “Just before we serve them, we fry them in peanut oil.”

He added that the process is time-consuming, “so when we run out of them, we are out!”

Charlie Mewshaw

I asked him if they sold French fries with gravy the way the Diner boys ate them in the same booth in which I was sitting.

“We make our own gravy, too!” he replied.

The Hollywood Diner made several appearances in a number of movies after Diner. It has also appeared in Sleepless in Seattle, Homicide: Life on the Streets, Enemy of the State, The Wire, and Liberty Heights.

Baltimorean Michael Tucker, who was in both Diner and Tin Men, believed the Hollywood Diner was modeled after the Hilltop Diner in Pikesville. Barry Levinson, who was also from Pikesville, is believed to have finished many a plate of French fries and gravy at the Hilltop.

Tin Men and Diner showcased the diner’s “code” of where the patrons sat. Working men sat on the left side of the diner — if you are facing it from the outside — and the kids sat on the right.

At the Christmas night gathering in Diner, after Fenwick rolls his car on a road surrounded by woods, (I’ve always wondered where that scene was filmed. It looks like the windy San Martin Drive that borders Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, before one sleek building after another appeared on the Wyman Park side.) they all head to the right side of the Fells Point Diner, which it was called in both movies.

Chef Kevin Roberts

Tin Men, filmed in 1987, depicted the con men who sold aluminum siding to homeowners in Baltimore in 1963. They frequented the diner in the daylight hours, eating late breakfasts and lingering over coffee before they set off on sales calls (or to the race track).

The Diner boys were “night owls,” sparing with each other into the early morning and arguing over whose music was the best for making out: Sinatra’s or Mathis?

“Presley,” Boogie (Mickey Rourke) answered.

Boogie did cross to the left side when he learned that Bagel (Michael Tucker) had paid off his gambling debt. Bagel then offered Boogie – the raunchy, yet smooth lady’s man — a job.

In one of the film’s signature scenes, Boogie explains to his beautiful date, Carol Heathrow (Colette Blonigan) how something found in the bottom of the popcorn box they shared got there! Smooth? You bet. Believable? Well, the audience was privy to the wager made at the diner prior to the date. Carol bought it and forgave Boogie who laughed all the way back to the diner to collect on his bet.

In Tin Men, Barbara Hershey, who plays Ernest Tilley’s (Danny DeVito) wife, Nora, discusses the end of her marriage with Ernest in the diner. Neither Ernest nor his wife realizes that her new boyfriend is Ernest’s nemesis, Billy “BB” Babowsky (Richard Dreyfuss). The animosity between BB and Ernest runs throughout the film which begins in a Cadillac showroom and ends with a comment about the future: the Volkswagen Beetle.

In both movies, Diner and Tin Men, coffee was served in white mugs. My companion and I sipped Guatemalan coffee in green ones.

My companion was pleased with the Hollywood Diner’s coffee.

“Well blended, not bitter,” he said. He liked it black.

Henry Gaines

Henry Gaines, a Baltimore City employee, came into the Hollywood Diner simply for their coffee ($1.59).

“Two people on the street told me how good it is!” he said.

Mewshaw told me that the Crema Coffee Company operates the Hollywood Diner in conjunction with the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development, which educates the city’s youths and trains them for careers, including restaurant management and how to prepare food.

Because Mewshaw added that the Hollywood Diner grounds its own beef and sausage, my companion ordered the bacon cheeseburger, eight ounces of burger cooked to order and topped with sharp cheddar and thick sliced crispy bacon for $7.25.

“The hamburger is very fresh.” he said. “No filler. The bacon is nice and crisp and the roll is excellent.”

I didn’t have to ask him Modell’s question, “Are you gonna’ finish that?”

Photos by Caryn Coyle


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About the author

Frequent WTBH contributor Caryn Coyle writes about arts, culture and food for the CBS Baltimore and has had fiction published in a dozen literary journals including Smile Hon You're In Baltimore, Gargoyle, JMWW, The Little Patuxent Review, Loch Raven Review, Midway Journal, The Journal (Santa Fe) and the anthology City Sages: Baltimore. She won the 2009 Maryland Writers Association Short Fiction Award, third prize in the first Delmarva Review Short Story Contest, 2011 and honorable mentions for her fiction from the Missouri Writer's Guild (2011) and the St. Louis Writer's Guild (2012).

8 Comments

  1. Elliott says:

    Im a Baltimorean from Pigtowne and have eaten @ the Hollywood Diner years ago, Now lets travel back in time to September 24,2002 I a kid from Pigtowne had just that day moved to HOLLYWOOD (well Downtown Los Angeles to be exact) From Catonsville and I was hungry so I walked around the corner and I see “Cole’s” Restaurant (which I would find out later invented the French Dip Sandwich in 1908) They are the Oldest Continuosly operating Restaurant in Los Angeles. So I go in and sit at the Bar sitting to my left I see a man in none other than an O’s hat I strike up a conversation with the man and he is Alan Mason school mate of Barry Levinson and was the insiration of the Daniel Stern Character in DINER – I to this day count allan as a good friend and it goes to show O’s fans and Baltimoreans are EVERYWHERE – Alan is a Music Producer / Supervisor in LA and often works with Barry Levinson as he did on Rainman,Cadillac Man and Liberty Heights amongst others.

    Reply
  2. Caryn,

    Great article! Now I’ll have to watch the movie again — and eat it too!

    Eric

    Reply
  3. Larry Cultrera says:

    Your facts are slightly off about this diner. It was built in Singac, NJ by Mountain View Diners. It operated on Long Island for many years and was taken in on trade by Paramount Modular Concepts (Paramount Diners) of Oakland, NJ when the former owners bought a new diner from Paramount. That is where Barry Levinson found it and he leased the building and moved it to the Fells Point neighborhood to film “Diner”. After filming was complete the diner ended up back in Oakland, NJ. About a year after that, WBAL bought the diner and moved it back to Baltimore on the current operating site. It was set-up and run by a non-profit to train at-risk teens and young adults to work and run a food service establishment. It was originally called Kid’s Place. When Levinson made Tin Man he used the diner again for a couple of scenes at this location.

    Reply
  4. kathy says:

    My papou (grandfather in Greek) owned the hilltop diner in baltimore which It says in this article the movie was believed to be written about. Does anyone else remember the hilltop?

    Reply
    • Kate McMillan says:

      Hey Kathy, could you email me? The Maryland Film Festival is having a 30th Anniversary celebration of DINER on Dec 10th in Baltiore and we would love to talk with you about your late grandfather and the Hilltop Diner. kate@mdfilmfest.com or 443.223.6432.

      Reply
    • Barry Fell says:

      Kathy

      Do I remember the Hilltop Diner? Hat’s off to your grandfather. The Hilltop Diner was across the street from the Hilltop shoping center on Reisterstown Road just east of Roger’s Avenue. The Hilltop shopping center had a number of great stores including Mandell-Ballow’s Dellicatesian, and the Crest movie theatre.

      I ate at the dinner as a kid from around 1946 to the late 1950′s. It is the place where I ate my first cheeseburger.

      Allan Mason, music producer for Barry Levinson was my next door neighbor on Devonshire Drive in Northeast Baltimore. We grew up together, lost touch with each other in the 70′s and were brought together by a mutual friend in 2007. Mace lives in LA and I live in Sandy Spring MD. We still correspond. I never knew Barry Levinson when he was growing up in Baltimore but my girl friend in high school sat between Barry and his girlfriend at Forrest Park High School. She used to pass notes between Barry and his girl during class.

      Sorry for the long answer, but yes, I have very fond memories of the Hilltop Dinner. The last time I drove by its location, it had been converted into a liquor store.

      PS Kathy sorry to take 2 years to respond to your question but I just found this site this evening.

      Reply
  5. RonJon, you are correct, it was Kid’s Diner when it first opened. My mistake

    Reply

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