Even as a boy, Joancarlo Parkhurst knew Restaurant Florent was different. Opened in the mid-1980s in New York’s Meatpacking District, back when its streets were home to sex clubs, sailor dives and hotels that charged by the hour, Florent welcomed everyone into its Formica embrace: the rich and the destitute, prostitutes and politicians, locals and tourists. Even celebrities felt comfortable at the diner: Artist Roy Lichtenstein was a daily visitor, always occupying the same seat.
“It was kind of like the halfway house of restaurants,” actress and comedian Jackie Hoffman told the New York Times before Florent closed in 2008. “Anyone could go in there and not be judged.”
Florent and its charismatic owner, Florent Morellet, made such an impression on Parkhurst that when he decided to open his first restaurant, he used the celebrated Manhattan diner as a blueprint. Parkhurst wanted not only to re-create Florent’s boho, equal-access vibe but also to mimic Morellet’s open-ended menu, which embraced both Old and New World dishes, each one prepared with a French chef’s attention to detail.
Parkhurst certainly picked the right spot for Lina’s Diner and Bar: It occupies the same space that, for years, housed Piratz Tavern, the Silver Spring pub that attracted scurvy dogs, corseted wenches and other marginal characters who liked to dress in silk scarves and buccaneer boots — and brandish broadswords in the parking lot. Eccentricity is deeply embedded in these walls.
You might not recognize the space anymore, even if you remember its awkward layout: the dead-zone dining nook near the entrance; the long, narrow corridor that leads you, like a mountain tunnel, to the cozy back bar; the enclosed outdoor patio that can feel like a breezy, leafy retreat from the semi-claustrophobic restaurant.
Lina’s is Parkhurst’s baby. He’s the owner, chef, line cook, interior designer, bar director, dishwasher, you name it. The place is named after his daughter, whose “portrait” hangs in the front room, looking more like the logo of a certain burger chain. That’s purposeful. Parkhurst asked artist Brian Williams to create a kind of pop-art portrait reminiscent of Wendy’s pigtailed mascot and Eloise, the wild child of Kay Thompson’s classic children’s books. Williams’s resulting painting is beyond charming.
Parkhurst has done an admirable job creating an equally charming space, no easy task given the Dickensian gloom that once hung over the property. He has relied on white and gray paints to lighten the walls and wainscoting, easing your old concerns that these rooms might suck the soul right from your chest. The walls are decorated with papier-mâché animal heads, a rusty Sears Tote-Cycle bike, mirrors and a collection of Audubon Society plates that his grandmother, Parkhurst jokes, probably bought “from an infomercial in the ’70s.”
“I wanted it to feel like you were going to grandma’s house — if grandma was cool,” he says.
No grandma I know could have assembled a menu as cool as the one at Lina’s. Small but diverse, the menu makes no distinction between appetizers and entrees or even between breakfast and dinner plates. Most everything is mashed together on a list that includes steak frites, pork belly poutine, French onion soup, chilaquiles, hand-pulled burrata and a Boursin cheese omelet. Inexplicably, there is a separate section for sandwiches, which Parkhurst calls “samwiches,” evoking the diction of our younger, more carefree days. The randomness of these dishes mirrors the diner experience, although in a more concentrated and elevated form.
You can almost trace Parkhurst’s life story through his plates: The burrata hails from Murray’s Cheese in New York, a nod to his childhood streets (not to mention his stint as general manager of RPM Italian in Mount Vernon). The steak frites can be traced to his time as general manger and new-store opener for Ruth’s Chris. The “TNT” toast — tuna tartare, spicy mayo and tobiko on toast — is a crostini-esque take on the rolls found at Sushisamba in Miami Beach, where he once served as GM. The chilaquiles are a gift to his wife, who hails from Houston.
No dish crosses the $20 threshold, save for the steak frites, which demands $20.95. The entree is a steal even at that price: A thick slab of culotte arrives with your choice of bearnaise or maître d’hôtel butter, along with a cup of skin-on fries cut into long, languid arcs. I ordered my steak medium-rare, and its ruby juices intermingled with the rich, licorice-stick bearnaise to deliver a bite that beautifully balanced plant, egg and animal.
Le D.C. is a souped-up Cubano, a crusty baguette layered with country ham, sweet plantains, Gruyere and meaty pieces of pernil, the roast pork native to Puerto Rico, Parkhurst’s birthplace. The sandwich is sweet, in at least two senses of the word.
When cut open, the cow’s milk burrata releases a lazy river of curds and cream, the cheese equivalent of a pricked egg yolk. Spread onto grilled rustic bread, with olive oil and tomato, the curds are cool, milky complements to everything they touch. By contrast, the spicy mayo on the TNT toast walks all over the tuna, but given the bold flavors of the snack, that’s an insult I’m willing to accept.
Don’t miss the chilaquiles, even if you hate ordering breakfast for dinner; buried in an oval baking dish, the tortilla strips have lost their edge, but their corn fragrance still saturates this deceptively brawny casserole packed with chorizo, hominy and avocado, then topped with a camera-ready sunny-side-up egg. In terms of sheer decadence, the chilaquiles is a surprising contender against such heavyweights as Lina’s double cheeseburger, its chicken-liver-and-foie-gras terrine and even its dark chocolate pot au crème, each of which could knock you flat with its excess.
A dish or two here still needs tinkering, including the French onion soup, a bowl with a dense tangle of softened onions, but little depth. On the other hand, the salmon tartine is so choked with fat — avocado, olive oil and herbed mascarpone — the cured fish can barely speak. And the bar team needs to remember that a Horse’s Neck earned its name from the long, thin spiral (not short, stubby twist) of lemon rind that hugs the inside of the highball glass. The bar team could also use better ice.
But, to be honest, I’m relieved that Lina’s has flaws. Who wants a perfect diner? I want a diner with humanity, in all its messy and misbegotten forms.
8402 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 240-641-8061. linasdiner.com.
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: Silver Spring, with a 0.3-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $1.95 to $6.95 for sides; $9.95 to $20.95 for salads, appetizers and entrees.