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Free Range

Lost City Diner

Long-delayed Station North spot does great decor, good eats

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden


Lost City Diner

1730 N. Charles St., [410] 547-5678

More at weekly.citypaper.com

For nearly eight years, Baltimoreans passed the retro-styled storefront with the milkshake sign on the corner of Charles and Lafayette streets, wondering what was going on behind windows papered over with old issues of City Paper and if the promise of a milkshake would ever come to fruition. Late this summer, owner Joy Martin finally opened the Lost City Diner. Does that milkshake taste better because of the anticipation? No doubt about it.

While the new Gino’s in Towson offers its own brand of milkshake nostalgia, Lost City time-travels back to an era before the majority of its customers (and possibly their parents) were even born. I can’t say that I’ve ever eaten in a 1930s sci-fi themed restaurant before, and the text on the vintage posters for pulp novels like Fish Men of Venus that line the wall behind the soda fountain sums up an appropriate reaction to the surroundings: “Fantastic!” “Startling!” “Amazing!”

Fans whirl against a tin ceiling the silvery angles of which catch the light like your grandmother’s mercury glass Christmas ornaments. The innards of ancient radio equipment curl and twist on a shelf above a row of pitch-perfect vinyl booths, while a glowing Wurlitzer pumps out rockabilly and Kraftwerk, which sound oddly perfect here. Water arrives in old-fashioned Coke glasses, served by folks in snug-fitting Czech army surplus uniforms, a snappy red bull’s-eye dead center on the uniform’s cap. If Lost City Diner doesn’t quite feel like walking into a diner of yesteryear, it does feel otherworldly, snug, and even a little secret. There’s a hum, a warmth, and, on a first visit, the anticipation of not just a meal, but an experience.

Any food would have a tough time living up to the décor of Lost City Diner, and while most of the food here isn’t scintillating, it isn’t bad either. Any new Baltimore restaurant that serves coddies (as an appetizer) and golupki (as a special) earns points for nodding to Baltimore’s heritage, and the numerous vegetarian and vegan offerings—from salad dressing to ice cream sundaes—earn points for recognizing that a contemporary restaurant needs more than one token dish of either sort on its menu.

The rest of the menu veers between basic diner fare—mac ‘n’ cheese, fish and chips, burgers—and college-town earthy-crunchy (tamale pie, vegetarian lasagna) with a few surprises. A plastic basket of Saturn rings ($7) is full of batter-fried apple instead of onion, and served with horseradish sauce, a sweet and savory combo that works surprisingly well. The coddies ($8) are more contemporary than retro. A combination of what appears to be fresh cod (rather than the traditional salt cod), onions, and mashed potato, their consistency is more akin to salmon cakes. This is not necessarily a terrible thing, but they could use more salt, as could the Mars burger ($9), which came cooked to a nicely rosy medium rare on a very fresh roll, but lacked much flavor outside of a slice of pepper-jack cheese.

Lost City is more successful with its rendition of chicken and waffles ($11) served sandwich style—a very crisp chicken breast hugged between two waffles and a slick of strawberry-onion marmalade. And the turkey dinner ($13), mashed potatoes and slices of creamy white meat doused in home-style gravy accompanied by a sauté of pumpkin and squash, would not be out of place on a Thanksgiving table.

A neighboring diner advised that the tamale pie ($12) was “too much cornbread,” but there’s also a fair amount of piquant barbecued pork to balance the cornbread crust. And while remaining cognizant of a piping hot cast-iron skillet on your plate may be a challenge to some diners, the presentation is tops.

Lost City does not serve alcohol, but you may bring your own, and the genuinely sweet servers will run next door to Club Charles, Martin’s other business, for whatever gadgets—a corkscrew, an additional cork for an unfinished bottle—are needed. On a weekday night, though, fountain Cokes, tin-roof sundaes in curvy glasses, and silver shakers of chocolate malts ($5.50), thick with Blue Bell ice cream and generously laced with malt, are more prevalent than wine glasses and sixpacks, even in a sea of beards, plaid, and black-framed glasses. It feels right and proper to be drinking malts here, and one wishes the hours were extended to include lunchtime, when more youngsters might gape in awe at, say, the giant from jupiter poster as they scrape the bottoms of their glasses for the last swallow of ice cream. Right now, however, the fantasy is mostly for grownups. Meet you for a malt after the late show?

The Lost City Diner is open for dinner Monday-Saturday.

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