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Longtime Forest Diner waitress Mary Mitchell jokes around with customers Lashelle Watts and her daughter, Shawna, 2, of Baltimore, on Feb. 17. The property the diner sits on has been sold for development, but the place will remain open for 4 1/2 more years. (Staff photo by Nicole Martyn)
The griddle is still sizzling and the coffee's still hot, for now.

After more than 60 years in business, the Forest Diner's days are numbered.

The iconic diner on Route 40 in Ellicott City has been sold to make way for an office complex, although there's an unusual catch. Diner owner Will Reich, 70, struck the deal with the condition that he could rent the property back for five years.

He plans to keep the diner open until then, to give his employees -- and his loyal customers -- time to plan for a life without the Forest Diner.

"I had a number of employees who've been here a long time, a lot of customers who've been here a long time," Reich explained. "We just didn't want to cut it off that fast."

Reich sold his land to a group of investors that includes Michael Weal, whose family has owned the nearby Forest Motel since the 1960s. The motel (which closed last month), diner and two homes behind them will be replaced by an office and retail complex, Weal said.

The decision to close down the diner was not an easy one, Reich said. The poor state of the economy influenced his thinking, he said. At age 70, he's also not sure that he wants to run the restaurant indefinitely.

Others in the past have offered to buy the diner for redevelopment, he said, but they all wanted to shut down the restaurant immediately. The sale helped assure Reich that he can stay afloat during rough economic times and give his employees plenty of time to prepare for the closing.

"They're all a little disappointed," Reich said, "but this takes the pain out of it a little bit."

The deal was inked in August, which gives the diner's loyal customers 4 1/2 more years to get their daily ration of eggs and coffee, burgers, and homemade meatloaf.

'End of an era'

Perched on a stool at the diner's counter on a recent weekday morning, Dan Lennon said he's been coming to the Forest Diner with his family since he was 8 years old.

Now 61, the Ellicott City resident still stops by for breakfast almost every morning.

"It's the end of an era," he said of the diner's closing. "It's certainly going to be missed."

Grabbing seats at the counter next to Lennon were long-time friends and fellow patrons Loren Mitchell and Dave Eberhart. Mitchell, 75, became friends with the wait staff when he worked at a gas station next door, he said, and often stopped in to help "the girls" with clogged drains and other maintenance problems.

"The food was always good and the service has always been great," the Woodbine resident said. "It's like one of those things that should never change. You always think it's going to be there."

Barbara Carroll, 58, who now works as a morning manager and cashier, has been at the diner since she was 19. She has been there through two owners and said she still serves customers who have been coming in since she first started.

"Every day is a new adventure," she said. "I met a lot of people through the years, and the place has been good to me ... It's just like a family affair."

New property owner Weal said the Ellicott City-based firm Land Design and Development will develop and build the planned office and retail complex.

The complex will consist of four to six buildings, Weal said, with some shops and offices opening up before others.

Developers hope to create a unique-looking, upscale center that will become a landmark in its own right, he said.

John Lederer, president of Friends of Font Hill, a nearby community association, said he is pleased so far with conception plans the developer has shared.

The motel, which the Weal family bought in the 1960s, permanently closed Jan. 18, a victim of the overall economic downturn, Weal said.

"Business has been so bad," said Weal, who also is an assistant state's attorney in Howard County. "It was just to the point where we felt we were throwing good money after bad."

Began as dining car

The Forest Diner began life in 1946 when original owner Bob Gearhart opened a 40-seat dining car that he named after himself -- Gearhart's Diner.

The restaurant traded hands in 1957 when it was bought by William Carl Childress. He owned the diner for 41 years before he died in 1998 and Reich bought it. The Childress family also owned the motel for a brief time before selling it to the Weals.

Business at both establishments was bolstered by the Enchanted Forest amusement park across the street. The popular attraction opened in 1955 and helped funnel customers to the diner and motel until it closed in the mid-1990s.

Over the years, the diner has had its share of famous visitors. Rock pioneer Fats Domino and his band once dined there, and former Gov. William Donald Schaefer was a fan of the fried chicken, Reich said. The TV shows "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "America's Most Wanted" both have used the diner as a set.

Since he took over, Reich started weekly dinner shows, featuring impersonators of celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. Business has remained good, even after a Double T Diner opened up nearby.

"It's not just the product you're selling but the attitude that goes with it," he said.

Although the Forest Diner will shut its doors in a few years, Reich said this might not be the end. He said he would consider reopening the diner at another location, if he, his employees and his customers are behind it.

"The fact is, four or five years from now -- if my employees still have the enthusiasm they have now, and I still get up in the morning and want to do it -- we'll find another location and continue," he said.


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