It goes without saying that the Tastee Diner is one of my favorite places.
It’s one of the last vestiges of the real Laurel—an authentic, original 1951 diner built by the legendary Comac company and delivered to the site that same year, when the Second Street bypass was opened, splitting Route 1 north and south.
The diner replaced a previous iteration, which had occupied the site since 1934. That one was shipped off to Baltimore, where it became the State Diner (now long gone.)
I won’t attempt to get into the full history of the Laurel Tastee Diner in this post. (To get an idea of that, you can watch a brief teaser for the video I’m still producing below.) But, suffice it to say, it’s a true piece of Laurel’s history.
Remarkably, the building—now 67 years old—still looks and functions very much as it did in its heyday. It’s a veritable time capsule. That’s one reason I enjoy spending so much time there, comparing notes and research with the Laurel History Boys.
That, and the staff are practically like family. When my father was undergoing cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins, my parents would drive from their home in Salisbury to meet me at the diner. (They were afraid of driving into Baltimore themselves.) The waitresses would keep an eye on my truck in the parking lot while I chauffeured my parents.
And when my dad passed away in April, the staff even signed a sympathy card for me.
So, you can imagine my disappointment when I learned that the diner property is being sold—and the buyer has extensive plans to render it completely unrecognizable… and turn it into a medical marijuana dispensary.
Let me re-frame for a moment and make something clear–Gene Wilkes and his family have done an amazing job keeping not just one, but a trio of classic diners going for decades. He’s certainly earned the right to sell the business.
Likewise, Pure Hana Synergy, the company purchasing the diner site, has every right to open their new venture—which will not only offer a valuable service, allowing patients access to legal medical cannabis, they’ll undoubtedly clean up a site that has long needed improvement.
That brings me to another important point—the optics of the Tastee Diner having been seen as a “less than savory” spot for some time now.
Depending whom you ask, perception of the diner varies greatly. Some are purists who genuinely appreciate the authenticity. Then there are those who view the place as “dirty”, or a hotbed criminal activity.
The reality is that the diner gets a bad rap for two other establishments it shares ownership with: the TD Lounge and the adjacent motel. Problems that have required police response have typically involved the bar and the motel—not the diner itself. But because of its central location, the diner is often seen as the hub of this negative activity.
When Pure Hana Synergy purchases the property, they plan to modify the diner and the TD Lounge building that adjoins it, wrapping it in a modern façade and gutting the interior. The motel will be demolished, as will the large white house on the lot facing Second Street.
But the diner itself shouldn’t deserve this fate.
The diner doesn’t yet have the prestigious “historic designation” that some buildings receive, protecting them from development. It has been considered for it—but that was over 20 years ago, when diners such as it were ubiquitous throughout the east coast and beyond. The Maryland Historical Trust conducted a survey in May, 1998, and deemed the Tastee Diner as being “ineligible” for various reasons. (See the excerpt below for their crietria):
But how about now—when Laurel’s Tastee Diner is one of only two surviving, fully-intact Comac-built diners known in the entire country? (The only other being Jack’s Diner in Albany, NY.) Countless others have been demolished, or modified beyond recognition—just as the Tastee Diner is now facing.
Historian Spencer Stewart, who created the wonderful Diner Hunter website, shared this important insight:
In Maryland, once home to dozens of factory built diners, and a hotbed of trolley conversions back in the day, there are only four (or so) old diners still open. Of those, the Tastee in Laurel is arguably the most in-tact and has the longest history on the site, going back in various buildings almost 90 years. The gutting of the Laurel Tastee and its conversion to a dispensary would be an enormous loss of a rare survivor of something that was once ubiquitous in mid-atlantic culture and is now severely endangered.
I’ve proposed that the City of Laurel work with the owners of Pure Hana Synergy to preserve the diner car itself—which isn’t a linchpin of their architectural plan, anyway. The diner portion can be relocated. (Remember, it arrived here from New Jersey by truck in 1951—it can certainly be moved again.)
In fact, this is something that owner Gene Wilkes is all-too familiar with. In June, 2000, he collaborated with Montgomery County to relocate the historic diner car when Discovery Communications decided to build their headquarters on the diner’s original site. (Ironically, Discovery has since moved on—while the Tastee Diner remains successful in its new location.)
To that note, the City of Laurel has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—to either seize for themselves, or to work with a developer such as C Street Flats (who already plans to expand to Main Street). Imagine relocating the diner, perhaps to the empty lot at 312 Main Street, which was the site of the old Laurel Theatre/Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre. The city wasn’t keen on salvaging any parts of that old building—but the lot has sat vacant now for two years. Laurel’s Community Redevelopment Authority has been soliciting proposals for the property ever since. From their RFP:
The CRA purchased the property in 2014 in order to develop the property and is seeking ideas, a vision, and a methodology from experienced developers to transform this key site into a use that will complement the adjacent residential neighborhood and enhance Main Street while adding to the success of Main Street commercial core. The development of the Site will set the direction for new redevelopment along the City’s Main Street.
Imagine for a moment the Laurel/Tastee Diner in that spot—accessible from anywhere along Main Street by foot. There’d still be space for parking, and delivery access from Fetty Alley. Imagine the diner on its own—free from the stigma of the troublesome bar and motel, and under new management that will restore and maintain the historic building. Maybe it doesn’t have to be open 24 hours anymore, either.
If you’ve ever been to the fully-restored 29 Diner in Fairfax, VA, you’ll get a sense of what a landmark diner can be, and there’s absolutely no reason to think that a renewed dedication to Laurel’s Tastee Diner would be any less successful.
I’m certainly not the only one who believes that this should happen. I started a petition on Change.org that gained over 600 signatures in the first day alone. Please click here to add your name to the list, to let all interested parties know that this diner should not be lost.
Laurel’s elected officials should realize that if properly managed, the diner could become an incredible heritage tourism attraction for Laurel, transforming Main Street and giving both it and this historic diner a new lease on life.