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After 66 years, Forest Diner set to serve last meals May 28

By Karen Nitkin, knitkin@verizon.net
May 23, 2012 | 11:55 a.m.

It’s Sunday morning, so that means Dick Weinknecht and Rick Dietrich are in their usual perches — sitting atop the red-vinyl-covered stools at the counter of the Forest Diner, nearly-empty coffee cups and folded newspapers in front of them.

“I come here for breakfast seven days a week,” said Dietrich. “Four days a week I eat oatmeal, then I mix it up with eggs.”

But his 43 years of breakfasts at the Forest Diner will end Monday, May 28, when the 66-year-old Ellicott City institution closes its doors for good. Michael and Steve Weal, the brothers that own the property, are creating a mixed-used space, with 75,000 square feet of retail space and 38 apartments.
Forest Diner owner Will Reich, 74, sold his site to the Weals four years ago, with the condition that he could lease it back for up to five years.

“I’m sad, but I’ll get through it,” said Barbara Carroll, who started working as a waitress in the Forest Diner in 1969, after graduating from Howard High School. “We thought about having a big party, but then we decided it wasn’t really a celebration.”

Like other Forest Diner workers, Carroll, who now operates the cash register and greets most customers by name, will move to Jilly’s, just across Route 40 in the Enchanted Forest Shopping Center.

“The good part is that way back when, 17 years ago, when I bought the Forest, I bought Jilly’s across the street,” said Reich, who sold the Ellicott City Jilly’s to his son and partners a few years ago. “What we’ve done is we’ve worked out a deal where we’re moving the Forest Diner almost in its entirety over to Jilly’s. The menus, the employees, and hopefully the customers along with it.”

Reich, who also owns a Jilly’s and the Pikes Diner in Pikesville, said Forest Diner customers will get special discounts for a year at the Ellicott City Jilly’s.

The Forest Diner is the old-fashioned one sitting next to the newer, shinier Double T Diner, which opened in 1998. It’s known for staying open even during snowstorms, for its breakfasts and for its Henny Penny fried chicken, enjoyed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, said Reich.

On Sunday, May 20, bulldozers stood where the Forest Motel had once been located. The pool was gone.

But the Forest Diner parking lot was full and every table was occupied. A typed note taped to the front desk explained that the Forest Diner was closing, but the menu and staff would move to Jilly’s.

“Customers are understandably sad,” said Steve Stanton, a Jilly’s partner. “We’re getting a good feel that a lot of them are going to follow us over.”

A few people, like Jane O’Leary, were taking pictures of the diner’s interior, with its shiny metal siding, red-cushioned booths, and Betty Boop, Beatles and Elvis memorabilia.

‘They know your name’

“It’s just been a place where you come and they know your name,” said O’Leary, who was eating breakfast with Jon Ruckdeschel and their children Gussie, 7, and Ocean, who will be six on June 1. “They treat you like family.”

At another table, Jack Levine of Ellicott City and Carl Miceli of Baltimore were enjoying their favorite breakfast — coffee and steaming bowls of oatmeal, which arrived with smaller bowls of blueberries, raisins and brown sugar. Levine said he has been coming to the Forest Diner a couple of times a month for about 15 years, “always for breakfast.”

“It’s got personality,” said Miceli, who added he would give Jilly’s a try, but “it’s not going to have the same atmosphere.”

At yet another table, a group of six gathered for one of their last post-church Forest Diner breakfasts. Dave Eberhart of Ellicott City said he would miss “the ambience, the atmosphere, the waitresses.”

The Forest Diner started its life on Route 40 in 1946, a railroad sidecar that arrived on wheels. It was named Gearhart’s Diner for owner Bob Gearhart. In 1957, it was purchased by William Carl Childress, who built the Forest Motel in 1958, adding nine more units the following year, said Michael Weal, current co-owner of the property.

Weal’s parents purchased the motel in 1967, and the Childress family sold the diner to Reich. The motel closed in January, 2009. Now, the Weals are part of a venture, along with the Waverly Real Estate Group, bringing the old-fashioned property into modern times, with retail space and apartments. They are hoping to win LEED silver certification for meeting standards of energy and environmental protection.

When Carroll started working at the diner, the Enchanted Forest amusement park was across the street, bringing hoards of hungry families to the restaurant, she said. There was a Citgo gas station where the Double T now stands.

At one point, there was talk of incorporating the original boxcar into the new development, but Weal said it won’t fit in and he will find a buyer instead.

“There’s a lot of history there,” said Weal. “A lot of history, a lot of memories. It’s tough to see it go, but that’s progress I guess.”

Though he’s known for years the diner would close, “I can never get used to it,” said Reich. “Right now, I’m crying about it. I knew it was coming, but the realism never really happened until they brought the bulldozers in.”