If these (Baltimore) booths could talk
French fries with gravy, strawberry shortcake, brisket – the storied Hilltop Diner made famous by Barry Levinson's 1982 film served up a true slice of Americana for 25 years
When the Stamas brothers decided to open their diner in Northwest Baltimore after World War II, they had it built in New Jersey and then carefully shipped along the highway to its final destination on Reisterstown Road, just east of Rogers Avenue. The local WBAL radio station broadcast the shipping live, and with fanfare the Hilltop Diner opened in 1948.
The modest food establishment, which would later serve as the inspiration for Barry Levinson’s 1982 movie “The Diner,” became an important part of the lives of many in this densely populated Jewish neighborhood. For 25 years, its doors are said to have never closed to the public once; the Hilltop Diner was open day and night, on weekdays and holidays, during hurricanes and storms.
“It became a meeting place,” says George P. Stamas, son of Paul Stamas, one of the owners of the diner. “In the morning, you had the businessmen off to work, and then at lunch you had the women dressed up. Dinner you had families, and late night you had Boogie Weinglass and those characters,” Stamas recalls, referring to Levinson and his colorful cast of friends, including Leonard (Boogie) Weinglass, the inspiration behind the character Boogie in Levinson’s film, played by Mickey Rourke.
“They were scary,” says Glenn Marcus, a Baltimore-native documentary film writer and producer who grew up eating at the Hilltop diner with his family every other Sunday. “They wore leather jackets! It was a statement, but they were so harmless. They weren’t really bad.”
They weren’t so bad at all, in fact, judging by the success these diner guys would later come to achieve. Levinson became an Academy Award-winning writer and director, with a production company named Baltimore Pictures. Weinglass became a multi-millionaire after opening Merry-Go-Round, a clothing retail chain, and Boogie’s Diner, which is still open in Aspen, Colorado. Charles Benjamin and Harold Goldsmith, two of Weinglass’ diner buddies, joined him early on at Merry-Go-Round. Their old friend Richard Sher is a newscaster for Baltimore Channel 13, and the late Dr. Howard "Chip" Silverman, an addictions clinician and behavioral health consultant, went on to publish the book “Diner Guys” in 1989 about his friends at the Hilltop Diner. Just to name a few.
Brothers and co-owners Paul, Nick and Jim Stamas became legends in their own right, following in the footsteps of their father, George Stamas, who emigrated from Greece with his wife in the 1890s and opened the Coney Island Grill on Baltimore Avenue, a popular food joint during World War II. And while Paul’s son, George, who grew up at his father’s diner, is a lawyer and a banker now with the influential Kirkland & Ellis law firm – and while all his cousins, in fact, chose different career paths, he says – not a day goes by without them hearing from someone who still remembers the Hilltop Diner.
“I ate at the diner, met my wife at the diner, I sealed my best deal at the diner,” he recalls. “If those booths could talk, they would tell the story of Baltimore between the ’50s and ’70s.”
Why is it that some places become so special for so many people? Was it the food at the Hilltop Diner?
Well, there were the legendary French fries with gravy. “Those started as a side for the opened-faced turkey sandwich with gravy that dripped all over them,” explains Marcus. “People started saying, ‘Wait a minute, I can order just the French fries!”
Indeed, the infamous fries star in the first diner scene in Levinson’s film, and from there the camera pans to a group of nearly empty ketchup bottles standing upside down on top of more ketchup bottles, filling them up – it is another memory Marcus recalls clearly from his Sundays at the diner.
“It had its own bakery,” adds Stamas. “They would make fresh bread, pastries, pies and cakes. The strawberry shortcake was popular; also the New York cheesecake was very popular with the Jewish community. There was also a cinnamon roll which they called the Diner Roll.”
“It was a slice of Americana,” Stamas says. “It was French fries and gravy, terrific brisket of beef, hot turkey sandwiches, and a milkshake that was as thick as anyone can remember.”
“As thick as cement,” agrees 90-year-old Gilbert "Gil" Sandler, author of“Jewish Baltimore: A Family Album."
In another scene from the movie, Big-Guy Earl orders the full list of club sandwiches from the menu – in a metaphorical sampling of Jewish Northwest Baltimore. One, the Junction Sandwich, is likely to refer to the intersection where the diner was located, Reisterstown Road at Rogers Avenue. Another, the Pimlico “referred to the race track right up the street,” according Marcus. The Garrison was named after the junior high that most of the diner guys attended.
And then there was the George Sandwich, which, according to Marcus and Sandler, was the largest of them all.
“Family legend is that my grandfather was named George, and the first son of each of the sons was named George,” says Stamas. So there were three cousins named George, an uncle, who worked as a night manager at the Hilltop Diner, and the grandfather. “The name George dominated our family, and because the name George was so big, the sandwich became big,” he said. “It clearly had to be brisket of beef, coleslaw and Russian dressing, but I can’t verify that.”
As the Northwest neighborhood began to change in the mid-'70s, and as an era seemed to slip away in the process, the Hilltop Diner closed its doors after 25 storied years. “Baltimore experienced white flight. Everyone moved into Pikesville. The old diner area became very downtrodden poor area,” says Stamas.
So what is it about the Hilltop Diner, a seemingly ordinary bit of Americana, that touched its customers so deeply? “It was America emerging from World War II. It was Baltimore that was beginning to thrive,” explains Stamas. “Baltimore and America were young and ambitious, fulfilling their dreams. And a cozy seat at the diner was where they would kind of conduct their lives.”