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.
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.
“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!”
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.
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, 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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