If Olde Town Restaurant & Bakery was alive, it would collect Social Security and belong to the AARP.
At 85 years old, it’s safe to call the longstanding diner a Mount Airy landmark. But as of two weeks ago, a much younger face is backing the octogenarian dining room.
Luckily for locals, he’s someone with a deep appreciation for the restaurant’s history.
“The main reason I wanted to buy it is because I remember coming here with my grandparents and parents growing up,” said 31-year-old Kevin Costin, a longtime resident who purchased the space from former owners Dan and Staci Caiola. “There were other potential buyers and talks of turning it into something else, but I wanted people to be able to have the same experiences I did growing up.”
Costin, a field trip and rental coordinator for the Howard County Recreation Department, had little in the realm of restaurant industry experience (barring a brief period of employment at Olde Town as a teenager and some catering work with the Mount Airy Fire Company). But despite the career non-sequitur (Costin earned his masters degree in environmental biology at Hood College) the decision felt right for him. He bought the restaurant under an LLC named Firefly Fixin’s in honor of his graduate thesis, an experiment exploring the effects of light pollution on the luminescent insects.
At the urging of restaurant staff, he kept on Chef James Feng, as integral as the deep-fried scrapple on the menu. But he also hired new pastry chef Kari Finch and set to work reinvigorating sections of the menu, with a focus on house-made biscuits, bagels and English muffins to complement diner staples.
“We want as many things homemade as possible,” Costin said. “While keeping everything we’re known for.”
Right now, those changes are a work in progress. The English muffins I sampled on a return visit were totally different than the day before, one friendly waitress informed me, largely because Finch was still finessing her third test batch. I can tell you that particular run yielded thick, aerated muffins with deep pockets for butter (the best vessel, in my opinion, for the aforementioned scrapple), but many of the bakery items are still under construction.
If you’re lucky, there’s pie — a seasonally appropriate Key lime, in my case. The pastry wasn’t exactly pretty — with pale crust and a runny filling that probably wasn’t helped by the 95-degree weather — but it was delicious, the sweet-tart citrus a perfect antidote to the summer heat.
If you’re looking for tips, I’d tell you to keep it simple. A local diner, Old Towne excels at what local diners do best. That means crispy bacon, meaty chipped beef, and fluffy, buttery pancakes, topped with dripping layers of fake maple syrup. It means generous servings of tender home fries, cut into wedges and served skin-on with ground black pepper.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean crab cakes. Of course Olde Town has crab cakes — it’s a restaurant in Maryland. And I tried them, of course, because I know you people will order them unless I explicitly tell you not to.
In this case, I’m telling you not to. I sampled the state staple coated in Hollandaise as part of the Chesapeake Benedict, a breakfast offering served with home fries and sprinkled with Old Bay. I was disappointed by the lackluster cakes, fried to hockey puck-like consistency atop over-toasted English muffins. The dish lost more of its allure thanks to the overdone poached eggs with solid yellow yolks. Only a lemony Hollandaise sauce with a perfectly creamy consistency saved the plate from total loss.
I buoyed my spirits with the lunch menu, resplendent with comfort food favorites like chili burgers and a Rochester garbage plate. The upstate expat buries sliders under fries, macaroni salad, chopped onions, and a spicy minced meat sauce.
I chose not to test my stomach capacity in such a manner. But I can recommend the “award-winning” chili packed with tender ground beef and fat black beans, blanketed by a molten layer of cheddar cheese. The tangy dairy was the perfect complement to the stew’s just-right level of spice.
Burgers are another solid bet. I could practically write a novella on the patty melt I was served one day for lunch, cooked to a perfect medium rare and running with juices. Gooey Swiss cheese formed a thin layer beneath griddled rye bread — buttered and scented with fennel — and co-mingled with onions caramelized on the grill. The juicy sandwich necessitated some quick eating, but it was already difficult not to inhale.
Plus, you can enjoy it with some prime people watching. Visit Olde Town around noon on any given day and it’s likely that at least half the customers are on a first-name basis with their servers. Costin is already winning major brownie points for maintaining the restaurant in its original glory.
That’s a good thing. In an ever-changing county, local favorites are sometimes like fireflies. Blink once, and suddenly they’re gone.