Let’s talk about diners this week. There’s a good description of what a diner is in Wikipedia. There are several examples of diner types locally. I’d call the New Ideal in Aberdeen a typical small town USA diner. It definitely looks like a diner and is oriented mainly around a counter, stools, and booths. The Ballpark in Dublin does not have the same look at all, but has the right vibe and menu so it meets the wiki’s diner definition.
Then there is the Double T (TT) of Bel Air. It is the closest thing in my neighborhood to what I call a “Finer Diner.” Throughout New York, New Jersey, Southeastern PA, and Connecticut, there are countless examples of these FDs. The counter is mostly for show and the most patrons are served in booths and tables. Many have a true dining room and bar service. The menu must be large and diverse, the portions gargantuan, and at the really good ones, the food is fresh and flavorful. Inevitably, the first thing you see upon entering is a lavish pastry display filled with a tantalizing assortment of in-house baked goodies. There be a large rotating choice of daily specials, efficient waitstaff, and often offer early bird and senior citizen menus. One of my favorites of this type is the Clairmont in West Windsor, NJ. Generally, it meets all of my expectations and I always leave satisfied and with a box of leftovers.
Having lived in Harford since 1974, I was really glad when the TT opened on Route 24. I’ve dined there countless times, always hoping for a duplicate of the real FD experience. So, let’s see if my most recent experience measures up.
As a test, I recently ordered a roast chicken dinner at the TT and the Clairmont. At about 13 dollars, it usually comes with a salad, soup, a half chicken and two sides.
Bread: TT offers up a basket of stale challah. (They have to stop calling it chaluah.) Clairmont, a basket of assorted sweet rolls and some crusty rye bread.
Soup: TT’s Chicken soup tastes of salt and contains noodles that are flabby and overcooked. The added veggies appear to be yesterday’s leftovers. Clairmont serves a clear chicken broth that tastes like chicken with a large matzoh ball.
Salad: TT’s house salad appears to be a precut deal out of a bag, mostly iceberg, nee grape tomato, some shards of cabbage and carrot and some cukes. Clairmont offers a rather extensive salad bar with 2 types of fresh lettuce, spinach, and a variety of veggies, a vestige of the day when every eatery seemed to go the salad bar route.
Entree: TT’s ½ roasted chicken is overdone, probably due to an oven reheating. Skin is flabby, the meat has a nice taste, though even the dark meat is dry. The gravy on the side is over thickened and tastes mainly of salt. A spoon will almost stand up in it. Stuffing under the bird is quite gloppy and wet, but actually has a satisfying flavor. Steamed broccoli is overcooked, but still has some brightness and a bit of crunch. My plain baked potato is satisfactory, but obviously sat for a while in the kitchen.
Clairmont’s chicken is overdone, but not to the same extent. Skin has some crispness. It appears to have been reheated under a broiler. Stuffing is more of a crouton base and has some crunch, which is more to my liking. Vegetable and potato choices are more varied than at TT. Crisp fried zucchini and a baked sweet potato are quite good. Gravy is also on the side, it is of thinner consistency, and while salty it has some poultry and vegetable characteristics
Included dessert: At TT dessert is not included. The Clairmont offers pudding, jello, or ice cream. A nice touch, but I’d rather have one of the black and white cookies in the pastry case.
I really want to like the Double T. The owners have extensive experience in the food business. They also have connections with their fellow diner owners north of the Mason Dixon Line and even have some deliveries from the dreaded NJ. The kitchen appears to be happy putting out food that is just satisfactory. Could it be that the ownership is overextended, having so many locations in the Baltimore area? I asked the Clairmont’s proprietor his opinion. He says he knows the Double T guys and feels that a diner needs to be managed by the owners in order for it to achieve culinary glory.
I’m looking forward to readers’ opinions about this establishment. Have I been ordering the wrong things? Is there a better example of a FD in Harford County?
Oh, I see I have a Styrofoam box of leftovers in the fridge. I love that cold stuffing. Happy eating!
It’s not what your ordering that is the problem. As a former NY’er I know the FD you talk of. I was excited to see the TT as it reminded me of home, went in up, still was like home, menu and servers – you guessed it – just like home except when the food came….I’ve tried them about 6 or 7 times over the years and I was disappointed every time (so was the rest of my table) it’s soooo close to being what you want it to be – except the food. I gave up. There are yummy places to go – just not there.
I’ll continue to go to the TT, but only to order breakfast or lunch items. Sometimes pancakes and bacon make a satisfying dinner.
For the $$ charged, and the quality of the products – nothing exceptional – TT is not in our family’s list of places to go. Wished more time in the article could have been spent on New Ideal and Ballpark. I’ve lived in HC all my life and never set foot in the New Ideal. I’m curious to check it out as it’s been here forever.
Also, not far over the county line on Rt 40, I hear good things about the Happy Days Diner (elvis is back on the roof).
By coincidence, Happy Days used to be a Double T before the original partnership broke up. We tried it way back and it was awful. Perhaps these newer owners have found the love.
Why bother mentioning the New Ideal or Ball Park if you did not try them?
I mentioned them only to illustrate how I was attempting to define three “classes” of diners. I have been to both over the years. Neither has the pretension of being a “Fine Diner” as does the TT. As “me” mentions above, Double T fulfills all of one’s expectations, except for the food.
I also have been to the TT on numerous ocassions; for a late night ‘appetizer’ without all the noise of TGIF’s, its good. For a good meal, it is not. My experience was the same. The BallPark Diner, however, is fantastic! It’s very small but the meals are literally cooked at time of ordering, huge portions, wait staff incredibly kind and efficient. From liver&onions to crab cake platter, everything has always been great. the atmosphere feels more ‘homey’ with local Orioles, Ironbirds, Ravens, memorabilia everywhere. Try it — you will be glad you did!
At some point I will revisit the Ballpark. I was last there way back in 1995 on the same day that Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead passed away.
Dave Yensan says
The Bel Air TT is far below par when it comes to the food. The old one at Rolling and RT40 is the exact opposite. As you eluded it probably has to do with the owners having distanced themselves from the on the ground works.
The New Ideal lacks all of the pizazz but the food is great. As I wrote the other day the newly reopened Vancherie’s in Havre de Grace is great.
I wonder if the category here shouldn’t be “non-chain-real-lunch-and-breakfast-places”?
Though I will be concentrating more on dinners. Maybe someone else would like to take up the breakfast and lunch beat.
Hoyt Corkins Jr. says
Uh, excuse me. The Ballpark isn’t a diner. The sign out front clearly reads Ballpark Restaurant. By the way, it has its own weekly newspaper known as Ballpark Gazette.
I like your idea about non franchise / franchise categories.
It would be nice to know what mom and pop places were still around amongst all the retail chain places.
Looking at your responses makes the time taken for writing the review well worth it. Hoyt, your remark is noted, but as good as I remember the Ballpark being (It has been a while) it certainly would qualify for consideration on TV’s “Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives” no matter what the sigh outside says.
Dave, I do not plan on limiting myself to breakfast and lunch. My personal preference for dining out is at dinner time. I have not been to the TT in Catonsville in quite a while, but have been to the White Marsh TT a couple of times in the past year. While it is not up to my snobby FD standard, it is quite a bit better than the Bel Air place. One thing stands out – They have a saute page on the menu, something that disappeared from the Rt 24 eatery not long after they opened.
By the way, also out of Harford County, which means I will not review them, I have liked the Nautilus and the Towson Diners, both on York Road. They are both owner operated.
Dave Yensan says
No argument here. In fact the Diners, Drive Ins and Dives category makes huge sense.
Lon Staghorn says
ORIGINALLY THE PLACE WAS CALLED ‘BALLPARK DINER’. I DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT THE ‘BALLPARK GAZETTE’ MUST BE SOMETHING NEW.
I have eaten at the Ballpark and had mold in my bread pudding.
Try eating at Mamies off of 22 in Aberdeen. Home cooking, great food, friendly people and free dessert.
Mamie’s, while delicious, is always slow. I just do not have a 2 hour lunch built into my workday, as much as some people have the perception otherwise.
Mamies is on my agenda at some point.
Lon Staghorn says
Ballpark Diner is marginal, i used to go there, stopped and now go to Geneva Farms for the best breakfast deal in the county.
I agree with your review of the TT. It was a huge disappointment to me when I first moved to MD. I found that the White Marsh TT was slightly more acceptable. I know that many of the younger people moving from NJ to MD are moving to the White Marsh area to stay closer to better food, and I don’t blame them.
I’ve also been begging some North Jersey Chinese food restaurateurs to move down to HarCo so I can eat at their establishments. And I mean BEGGING.
As an aside, I have found that I do not feel motivated to go out to eat when it does not taste that great so I end up making everything myself. This ends up being a win-win situation. I end up eating healthier, and I improve my cooking abilities.
Back to the topic of food reviews. I’d like to see your take on Neel’s Kabob and Sizzling Bombay. I personally have not tried them both enough to make a detailed review, but I can say that I have had better in other places.
I will at some point review Chopstix’s Bel Air location. I have found it to be a cut above other local Chinese American fare.
Oh, and I have been to Neel’s. I have never been a big fan of Indian cuisine, perhaps since I am not well educated on the regions and the pan-Inidan things. I’m unsure if I can do a qualified review since I have little basis of comparison.
I do wish we had a middle eastern kabob place. The closest was Al Pacino’s in Bel Air plaza. When they first opened, the food was quite good. The fresh pita, hummus, babba ganoush, schwarma etc stood up to any I have had anywhere.
I second Paul’s recommendation of Chopstix (I believe it’s in Forest Hill, though). The food is fantastic, well above average, with superior ambiance and service I think. If you haven’t been there yet you owe it to yourself to check it out. There’s a nice little place in the Festival at BelAir (it’s next to a Sushi place but I can’t remember the name of either)that has really good food and great service. Their prices are also pretty reasonable.
I don’t think the food at Bel Air TT is prepared as well as that of other TT locations, and have found their service to be hit-and-miss in the prompt and courteous department. Glen Burnie has a great TT (there’s has the best pastrami hands down in my opinion, FYI for pastrami lovers–you’ll think you’re eating in a diner in NY or CA). My favorite local diner is the Fallston Diner. Their food is cooked perfectly even when they’re packed, they’ve got a lot of variety on their menu, and always (absoloutely always) give prompt friendly service. Worth a try if you haven’t been there and want to find a diner you can eat at for breakfast, lunch or diner and enjoy your meal.
Fallston Diner? Are you kidding me? I have been there twice, both times with a group of about 5…and no one has ever enjoyed their meal! After the last visit we decided we gave them enough of a chance and will not go back.
I had breakfast last time, eggs benedict, simple enough… until the hollandaise seemed a bit too yellow…and it turned out to be chicken gravy! I asked the waitress if perhaps they had simply spooned it out of the wrong bowl in a rush, but she assured me it was the right thing.
No, I’m not kidding you. I’m surprised to hear of your experiences, but hey stuff happens. I eat there several times a month and have been pleased all but one visit (and I say that not as someone who only eats at diners and fast food joints, I dine at considerably expensive fine dining establishments also (so you have an idea of whether I would even recognize good food). I also know others who really like the food at that diner and eat there fairly frequently. For a diner, I think it’s very good. Maybe you should give it another try, since you’ve only been there twice.