Forest Diner

10031 Baltimore National Pike (Route 40)

Ellicott City

465-5395

Hours: 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

Prices: Most lunch and dinner entrees $4.95 to $7.95.

Credit Cards: None. Cash or personal checks only.

"Another day, another 50 cents," said one waitress/philosopher as she slid her tip from the counter -- another day much like any other at the Forest Diner, where three generations of local customers are greeted by their first names and where good-natured insults are dispensed as generously as cups of coffee.

A 1960s remodeling job conceals the original exterior of this vintage Silk City Diner placed here in 1947, but the inside of the car is intact, right down to the gleaming red and white tile, rows of chrome bar stools and yards of polished stainless steel that still evokes the machine-age efficiency and cleanliness touted when the diner was built.

A modern dining room added to one side expands the seating capacity and insulates those who want to get away from the clatter of the counter, but I preferred the comfort of the brown vinyl booths and the possibilities offered by our personal Rock-ola booth juke. At busy times, you'll have to take a number and wait in the aqua Naugahyde chairs in the vestibule, but you can pass the time conversing and admiring the babies dandled proudly by parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who are waiting with you.

Great atmosphere, but how's the food in this roadside museum? Average, as diner food goes, with some items well above and a few below. As you would expect, mashed potatoes are powdered, most vegetables are canned and the brown gravy is of the instant variety -- all the shortcuts that made diner food fast food in the days before the microwave.

The trick to getting the best possible meal here is figuring out what has been prepared from scratch and making a beeline for it. Most of the seafood and steaks are frozen, but look for the little additions like fried onions that introduce a homemade element.

Calves liver and onions, my own diner yardstick, is one of the best dishes on the menu; not as tender as it should be but intensely flavorful. Delmonico steak tastes tired and dull; hamburger steak is better, but expect your meat extremely well done unless it is cooked to order.

Soft-shell crab is surprisingly tasty for frozen crab, but fried lake trout has already given up most of its flavor. Fried chicken is good enough, but the complete absence of spices in its crunchy coating took me aback. Daily specials that sounded more promising (and more homemade) were ham with boiled cabbage and potatoes, grilled pork chops with sauerkraut, and turkey roasted on the premises.

Soups labeled "homemade" are a good choice. And when you see a handwritten addition to the typed list of vegetables, snap it up immediately -- it has usually been prepared from fresh local produce. One vegetable special listed simply as "eggplant" turned out to be big, succulent pieces of breaded, deep-fried eggplant, delicious by any standards.

For dessert, rice pudding far outshines the bland, spongy bread pudding. This is rice pudding to write home about, with golden custard flecks between plump, translucent grains of chewy rice, dappled with patches of brown top crust and the odd raisin.

Breakfast is the real reason to go to the Forest Diner, though. It would be hard to find better pancakes or sausage. And the diner makes a delicious, if different, version of home fries by deep-frying slices of potato with the skin on. Pancakes are golden, tender and eggy, not at all starchy.

The huge portions of sagey, juicy sausage are cut from thick ropes -- serious sausage for big eaters. Peppery scrapple is another highlight, served in thick chunks that are crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside.

Eggs are uniformly good and omelets expertly browned, but watch out for the western omelet, which may be oilier than you bargained for. Don't even bother with the pale, limp French toast.

Breakfast is served any time, but the great home fries stop at lunch. My advice is to get there plenty early, put a quarter in the jukebox and settle into a big plate of pancakes and sausage with Waylon Jennings. Ellicott City offers nothing finer.