Station North's Area 51-esque eatery makes a comeback

Typically when we review a new restaurant, we allow the operation a month or two to find its footing, fine-tune the menu, straighten out any service kinks. But when, without warning, we spotted the red and yellow neon lights glowing at Lost City Diner (1730 N. Charles St., [410] 547-5678) last week-an occurrence so rare that we awarded the Art Deco-themed diner "Best Place to Eat Once a Decade" in 2012-an immediate review seemed warranted: Who knows how long we have?

Lost City opened in August 2011 under the ownership of Club Charles' Joy Martin, and even then, passersby had waited eight years for something to become of the restaurant. Reviews, including City Paper's (Free Range, Nov. 30, 2011), extolled its meticulously curated 1930s sci-fi theme and decor. Then, just as swiftly, it closed in January 2012 for kitchen renovations. Murmurs that it might reopen burbled that August, when "Fall 2012" posters appeared in the diner's window. Autumn came and went, though, and the shades remained drawn. Lost City began to fade from our consciousness.

Thus, when we drove by last week and saw the lights inside, we hurriedly parked our car and ran to double-check that the practically mythical joint was open. (The soda jerk behind the counter, dressed in an army surplus uniform, reported they opened Monday, April 1.)

Martin channeled a passion for science-fiction to curate one of the best dining rooms in Baltimore: The decor-illuminated images of comic-book covers on the wall above the counter, a working 1950s television incorporated into a engrossing electrical display, a metal rocket above the entryway, upside-down UFO fixtures hanging from the ceiling, eerie space music that plays in the tiled bathroom-remains nearly the same as before, and it's just as impressive as it was in 2011.

The changes, new owner John Rutoskey informed us, were mostly to the kitchen and the offerings. This time around, Lost City's menu leans more consistently toward diner fare, plus the assortment of shakes, floats, and sundaes you'd expect from such a lavish-looking soda fountain. The menu spans (all-day) breakfast and dinner, and offers numerous vegan options, including soy ice cream and a Gardein-brand burger.

Given that the restaurant only just reopened, our review comes with a hunk of salt. With such a large menu to learn, the kitchen and front-of-house staff are bound to make mistakes while familiarizing themselves with service. To Lost City's credit, Rutoskey and a dedicated expediter man the floor, ensuring the service is quick-and, for the most part, it was. When we got to the middle of the fried chicken sandwich, the meat was still steaming; food does not sit under heat lamps here.

But you may have to wait a while for your milkshake or sundae to arrive. One soda jerk handled all of the behind-the-counter operations each time we visited, and he didn't possess the speed and grace of an experienced counter-tender yet. Still, the drinks were good. Though the chocolate malt ($5.49) smacked too much of powder, the vanilla milkshake ($4.99), well-balanced and drinkable via straw, reminded us of childhood shakes past. The egg cream ($2.99) was also well done (but if you want to mix in something stronger than seltzer, bring your own; Lost City is BYOB).

Sometimes the meals did not match up with the text-heavy menu's descriptions. The garlicky hummus and pita platter ($7.29)-topped with bits of olive and red pepper-was satisfying, but was not roasted red pepper hummus, as advertised.

The chicken and waffles ($10.89), served with fries, was serviceable: the Belgian waffles thick, well-browned, lightly sweet, and dusted with powdered sugar; the chicken breast, though crisp, was dry in the center and not helped by the thin smear of honey mustard it comes with. The chicken, however, was not sandwiched between the waffles, as the menu stated, and the maple syrup promised was not served with the dish (and noticed too late to ask).

This was unfortunate, for syrup or any sauce might have tied the dish together-and supplied a dipping sauce for the fries. Which is a necessity, because the crinkle-cut fries are unsalted and bland, reminiscent of frozen fries your mom may have shaken out of an Ore-Ida bag and stuck in the oven on a baking sheet. When we used a fry to scoop up the delicious, horseradish-heavy cocktail sauce that came with the otherwise unremarkable shrimp basket ($9.99), the soft spud broke and we had to fish it out with a fork.

That the French fries are so lacking is surprising, for the chef clearly knows how to deep-fry: The cornflake-encrusted Monte Cristo ($10.49), served with a bowlful of raspberry jam, proved the star of our meals at Lost City. The Swiss cheese melded perfectly with the ham and turkey packed generously between the French toast. Coddies ($7.95), on special one night we visited, were crisped and seasoned so well that we stopped using mustard after our first few bites.

The flawless interior design of Lost City Diner tacitly heightens expectations for the restaurant, even though its prices match that which you'd see at, say, Towson Diner. Such attention was paid in composing the space-all the way down to the silver-lidded sugar-packet containers and the classic Americana ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles-one hopes the same philosophy applies to everything. But the same remixed music played in the restaurant over the course of three different nights, and the discrepancies between the menu's descriptions and the food served indicate that much tweaking remains ahead for Lost City's staff. If they can zero in on the details, the diner should have no problem becoming a Station North mainstay.

Lost City Diner serves dinner 4 P.M. to midnight Sunday through Thursday, and 4 P.M. to 2:30 A.m. Friday and Saturday.

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