Gravy train

So your mom doesn't make meatloaf for you anymore? Head over to the Princeton Diner, the College Park institution that spills over with fans. Then take a number and get in line. The morning crowd greets the day right with buttermilk pancakes, fresh from the griddle and crisp on the edges. And lunchers get fortified with gravy-laden blue-plate specials and fresh peanut butter pie. At least one reason people come back: The $5 portions that are embarrassingly large.

The faded "Enjoy Coca Cola" sign out front is a remnant from another era, as are the worn, 1940s-style stools at the Formica counter. Princeton Diner remains a crossroads for the neighborhood, so nickel-pinching office refugees are seated one booth away from old-timers who stroll in for their daily fix of soup and sandwiches. But once the seats fill up and the pace quickens, everyone gets treated the same. Don't expect any frilly service while you're waiting on that chili dog, friend.

Club sandwiches and patty melts are what sell, along with two-fisted "Dixie" burgers laced with bacon and barbecue sauce. Greek gyros and salads are about as ethnic as things get. And in the grand tradition of diners, sometimes the best thing on the menu is a special that was thrown together with leftovers, like the highly recommended corned beef and cabbage soup ($1.50). Other specials are such an iron-clad tradition, you can set your calendar by them. The standing offer on Thursdays is the meatloaf special ($5.50), braced with onions and juicy seasonings, based on an original Chicago recipe by co-owner Sue Hunter's grandmother.

The lunch plates offer little adventure, but plenty of homey vibes. Chopped steak with grilled onions ($4.95) is tender, succulent and flavorful; team it with the whipped potatoes and beefy gravy. Other dishes are likely to be less satisfying, such as the lackluster grilled boneless chicken breast ($4.95) or the fried fish fillet ($4.75) that's fresh from a deep freeze.

No matter your choice, the soups are a worthy extra at $1.50 per cup -- the cream of tomato, in particular, is delicious. The house chili ($1.65) is not an award-winner, but it's loaded with tasty beans and safely leans toward mild spiciness rather than aiming to blow your taste buds away.

Desserts are fairly good. Try the creamy homemade peanut butter pie ($1.95) or the apple pie dusted with cinnamon ($1.95).

Service was rushed and indifferent on one of our visits. On another less busy occasion, we received the sort of warm welcome that creates a crowd of regulars. But even with the inconsistencies and early closing time -- 3 p.m. weekdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays -- Princeton Diner doesn't seem to be in any danger of losing its hold on College Park.

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