From my seat at the counter of the Sip & Bite diner, I can feel the heat from the grill warm my face. The sounds of cooking fill my ears: the shlick, ting-shlick-ting of the metal spatula on the griddle, the sizzling sound of meat, onions, and crab cooking and the clank of silverware.
The 24-hour American diner is more than just an eatery. It’s a cultural institution. Greasy spoons across the country serve up their thick-plated, hearty fare at all hours of the day and night to a rotating crowd of factory workers, night owls, students, old folks, travelers, and everyone in between. Diners are the high school kids’ first late-night hangout, the bar crowds’ best early morning refuge, the down-home kitchens where couples have enjoyed Sunday brunch for decades. You can always go to the diner to nurse a cup of coffee in good company.
In Baltimore, that diner is the Sip & Bite, one block from the harbor and a mere four blocks from my apartment.
The Sip & Bite is a family-owned, family-run place, offering everything from their own Greek specialties, to the traditional 24-hour breakfast options, to some of the best crab cakes in town. The diner became a word-of-mouth phenomenon after George Vasiliadesas — the original owner — began ladling out daily homemade specials to stevedores, tugboat crews, packinghouse ladies, cops and other waterfront regulars who knew the value of a buck and the taste of real food. Over the years, the neighborhood has changed a lot, but the Sip & Bite remains the same unpretentious, reliable place for an omelet and fries at 3 a.m.
The Sip & Bite is the real deal, a late-night paradise of fluorescent lighting, syrup bottles, plastic-covered menus and ketchup. The cash register is so old you can watch the numbers flip, like the arrivals board at an old train station. Red and blue neon lights announcing “Breakfast Lunch Dinner Homemade Cooking Since 1948” shine in the windows, their colored glow reflected on the stainless steel inside. At 9 p.m. on a Sunday, the two waitresses are definitely busy. I’ve barely taken my coat off when one of them has put a cup of coffee down in front of me. “Here you go, sweetie,” she tells me, humming along with the radio and sailing off toward the booths with a carafe.
The gruff, paint-splattered man next to me in work boots and a canvas jacket also gets called “sweetie.” In my head, I’ve dubbed the two waitresses “Sweetie” and “Hon” for what they each call everyone around them. “Sweetie,” an incredibly petite woman with white hair piled on top of her head and a pair of reading glasses on a chain, picks up the phone by the register.
“Hello, Sip & Bite … Oh, hi there, Jimmy! Nope, it’s not too busy, well, it is, but it’s just about to slow down some, I think. Yep, we got the liver ’n onions tonight. OK then. See you soon!”
She clips another handwritten slip just over the grill. “And a pork chop special, Tony — make it saucy.”
Tony (Antonios) Vasiliadesas is presiding over the griddle tonight. A tall, lean man, he’s committed to continuing his father’s life work at the Sip & Bite. Tony earned a master’s degree in science and education from Delaware State, and for a while he tried to juggle a job as a science teacher with running the diner. Ultimately, though, the continued tug of the family business won out. He married one of the waitresses, Sofia, and the two of them now own and work at the Sip & Bite. Sofia invited all of the regular customers to their wedding.
Tony pours sugar into a tall glass of coffee during a brief lull, taking an appreciative slurp before turning back to the griddle. I like to sit at the counter just so I can watch him break the eggs one-handed, tossing the shells into the waste bin without looking, never missing. Pancakes line the griddle, alongside piles of eggs with cheese and bacon. The specials menu is taped up over the grill. Handwritten order slips flap with the stirred air of running waitresses.
“What kind of toast does he want?”
“Rye, with the spiced beets on the side.”
While I was training for a marathon, I’d come here for brunch after an 18-mile run. I’d leave the Sip & Bite full without spending more than $6. It’s nothing gourmet, but it’s good, cheap and filling — and, like so many diners, the people are what it’s all about. I finish up my dinner as slowly as possible, dawdling over my cof-fee.
“You take care, sweetie,” I am told when I finally pay my tab.
“We’ll see you soon now, yeah, hon?”
“You bet,” I say. “I’ll see you later.”
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org