True diners are an endangered species. I’m not talking about the new, shiny spots that serve $12 burgers, or boozy milkshakes, or homemade pop-tarts. I’m talking about places that serve food for the working class– the lunch counters, the 6 a.m. biscuits and gravy, the pots of coffee that get re-filled every five minutes, and the griddles that stay hot into the night.
Americans have traded tangible experiences for aesthetics. Going to the mom-and-pop joint used to mean actually going to a place owned by an actual mom and pop, and eating something remarkably simple, and completely delicious. Now, we’re quite content to go someplace owned by a guy that owns six other restaurants on the street, and pay top dollar for a grilled cheese. This is the same kind of attitude that leads us to live in a gated community, or learn about the world through the Travel Channel without leaving the house, or buy pre-ripped jeans.
There’s a handful of qualities associated with Diners. It’s not something easily acquired, according to my friend, Andy at Market House, in Knoxville. I asked him what makes a Diner a Diner, and this is his take on it:
“You have to keep it simple, and you have to keep it real. This isn’t complicated. It’s simple, well-prepared food, just like from your childhood, when this kind of place was on every corner. You can’t buy it or sell it– you have to pass it onto your kids, the way it was passed on to us. You either have it, or you don’t.”
Chef TJ at Market House also weighed in on the subject:
“There’s definitely a community aspect to it. You have to know your market, but you also have to know your neighborhood, and know who you’re serving. This place, for instance– I don’t have anything on my menu over ten bucks, and that’s because we know who lives here, and who wants to eat here.”
Diners weren’t created to provide expensive takes on American classics. They weren’t open all night for Adams Morgan bar-hoppers to stroll in, and devour pancakes at 3am to soak up the liquor. A real Diner serves breakfast, not “brunch.” The history of the Diner starts with the railroad, and people traveling from one place to another, with a powerful need to eat. The “Night-Lunch Wagon” was a way for travelers to eat something simple, that could sustain them on the way to wherever they were headed. Years later, theDiner cars were unhitched from the rest of the train, and set up as permanent structures. The food never changed, though.
So, bearing all that in mind, these are some of the true Diners of the District. All of them have served their respective neighborhoods for years, providing early-morning or late-night nourishment for the working class. All of them operate with the tried-and-true attitude of simplicity, and exactly none of these appear on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. Guy Fieri can shove it.
At the corner of 11th and Florida, just a few blocks away from the row houses that have stood for close to a century, and the newly-opened Atlantic Plumbing eyesore, there’s a little diner that gets packed every weekend with locals. The narrow Diner has a counter with stools on one side, and a two-top booths on the other side. The grill cooks work fast, flipping eggs, scrapple, pancakes, french toast with a furious concentration, never breaking away from the hot iron.
The Grill has stood in the same corner since 1944, when shoeshine man Lacey C. Wilson saved up enough cash to open the joint. He wanted to open a place that wold welcome Blacks and Whites alike, without the friction of segregation, which was still lawful in 1944. They wanted a common ground, where everyone who walked in the door were treated as equals. Lacey and his wife, Bertha, succeeded. Today, looking into the Florida Avenue Grill, you’ll see young folks who’ve heard about the delicious, simple, traditional offerings, and have come running to see what makes the Grill so special. You’ll also see regulars during the lunch hours; old guys you can set your watch by, who order the same sandwiches every week.
The U st. Corridor is facing down widespread and careless gentrification. It’s getting harder to find historical Black businesses that have served the neighborhood quite as well as the Florida Avenue Grill. This place is special, and their food is glorious.
You know what really gets under my skin? People who call family-owned Diners “greasy spoons.” The term means the staff doesn’t wash the silverware. It implies they cut corners on cleanliness, and only care about slinging food across the counter as quickly as possible. If you were to actually walk into a family owned Diner, like Murry and Paul’s in the heart of Brookland, you’ll see the staff cares a good deal about the cleanliness of the place.
You’ll also find heaping plates of sausage, eggs, grits (no, not the instant variety), and pancakes flying off the griddle. If you thought you were getting a deal on a $17 bowl of ramen at Daikaya, I invite you to try your hand (and your stomach) at the $7 pancake special at Murry and Paul’s.
They aren’t cutting corners here; they’re keeping it simple. They don’t skimp on anything that matters. Do they take credit cards? Nope. Do they have luxurious, cushy booths for brunchers? Nope. Is there any decor in the place beyond the Korean John Paul II poster in the back? Not really.
But that kind of thing doesn’t matter to the folks that have eaten here for years. In talking to a Ms. Harrington, who took her son for his first visit, this place was perfect for Postal workers, or night shift operators, or construction workers, or anyone who was up at the crack of dawn and needed affordable food. The food at Murry and Paul’s is hearty. It won’t make you forget how hard you have to work, but it at least gives you the strength to face it fearlessly. Good food should do that.
Where can you see congressmen and gas station attendants sitting next to each other? Where can you see a delivery truck driver and a librarian get into a political debate? What’s the one spot on Capitol Hill, where anyone from anywhere in the country can find something appetizing and affordable for lunch? Yeah, that’s Pete’s.
There’s two things that make Pete’s such a unique place: Firstly, the location. Capitol Hill is a fascinating neighborhood. Yes, it’s the epicenter of the federal government, but it’s also a historically working-class neighborhood (at least until very recently). This means you’ll see senators’ aids in the same watering holes as the guys who’ve lived up the street for forty years. Places like Capitol Hill Lounge, Tune Inn, and the old Hawk and Dove (not the shiny, new 2013 version) established a symbiotic relationship between the lifelong locals and the federal transplants. It makes for an interesting dining experience.
Secondly, there’s the matter of the island in the middle of the Diner. A lunch counter is one thing. A lunch counter is a shared structure, which puts everyone on the same kind of stool, at the same height, the same distance from the counter. It’s a statement on equality. An island goes one step further in culinary egalitarianism; not only is everyone at the same table, but now they have to face each other. This is something a lot of restaurants have strayed from in the past century. We don’t want the Beowulf-style mead-hall tables and benches. We want individual tables and chairs, where we can be by ourselves, away from the community.
In the part of town that invites people from quite literally all over the county, Pete’s works hard to bring everyone together. Take a look at the condiment station, for instance. Some people like A1 on their burger. Some people like ketchup. Some people like brown mustard on their hot dog, and some people like yellow. The staff has got you covered, not matter where you’re from. Pete’s is accommodating, Pete’s is welcoming, and they’re going to make you sit next to a stranger, whether you like it or not.
The rules here are simple, just like the food: Pay in cash, and don’t be an asshole. That’s it.
Jimmy T’s, a diner in the bottom floor of witch hat-capped row house on the corner of East Capitol and 5th, is a neighborhood mainstay. This is not a hole-in-the-wall; it is a family-owned Diner, providing food for the locals. If you sit by yourself, Cynde or John will chat you up, or leave you alone to read your paper. They’ve been at this for twenty years, inheriting it from the Cynde’s dad, the original Jimmy T. Cynde and John still live upstairs with their three kids.
The coffee mugs are purposefully mis-matched, and the presed tin decor is intentionally left the way it was back in the late 60’s. It’s not because they’re trying to pull on the District’s nostalgic heartstrings; it’s because they have better things to do than fuss over the decor, like making pumpkin pancakes. When I see things like mismatched stools and chairs, I don’t see neglect. I see people who care more about the food they serve their customers than what their customers put their respective asses on.
The prices here are more than reasonable. The atmosphere is friendly. Not the “good morning, how are you, how many in your party, where can I seat you, would you like coffee, do you need any room for creamer, would you like to hear the specials” kind-of-way. Coming to Jimmy T’s is more like visiting your old buddy from college who will still dig you in the ribs about the time you got caught streaking. At least, that’s the feeling I get.
The waffle has been around in one form or another for about a thousand years. Making one is not a terribly complicated process, and there’s not much room for improvement or variation. The Belgians have worked on a massive design that carefully cradles fruit and whipped cream. Waffle House has a pecan waffle that certainly stands out among the greats. But there’s one waffle that empirically tops them all: a blueberry waffle from Osman and Joe’s, served outdoors, in the summer, between 2am and 4am.
On the West end of the District, at the top of Wisconsin Avenue, only a few blocks from Fort Reno, and in the middle of Tenleytown, there is a wonderful Diner. It’s been there since 1931, and it’s still open 24 hours a day. The griddle, warped from generations of gas firing underneath it, is still serving up delicious Dinerfare all day, and all night. They’ve expanded, too. Their concrete front yard now has several mismatched pieces of patio furniture for those who want to enjoy their steak-and-eggs-over-easy outdoors.
Apart from being a rare institution these days, an all-night Diner is something special. When a place is open all night, they’re opening their doors to an infinite variety of customers. You could get jetlagged travelers just passing through town for the night, or you could get drunk locals who’ve partied since they got off work. It’s a gamble, and it takes love to keep the doors open to everyone. The heart of an all-night Diners is compassion for the community.
Compassion and love are exactly what one feels when they pull up a chair outside at 2am in Tenleytown. Osman and Joe’s doesn’t just offer the typical (but powerfully delicious) breakfast foodstuffs. They’ve got a full dinner menu, complete with a 8oz. T-bone steak and fresh asparagus. They’re trying to cover all the bases for whoever walks in the door, whatever their tastes or preferences.
This piece is called Diners of the District for a reason: They are all Diners, and they are all within the District of Columbia. Despite Hidden in Plain Sight‘s focus on landmarks in the District proper, I still hear a lot from people about landmarks in Maryland and Virginia. In the interest of satiating the readers from outside of the District, here are two Diners well-worth the visit:
Bob and Edith’s (Arlington, Crystal City, Springfield)
Ah, Northern Virginia– land of stripmalls, parking lots, acres of asphalt, and crushing boredom. Yes, I am biased. No, I am not ashamed. There are a handful of saving graces in the territories of greater NoVa, however. When I visit IOTA and Galaxy Hut, for instance, I am almost able to forget that I am surrounded by the soul-sucking sensations of suburbia.
But there’s one place that washes every icky feeling away, almost as soon as I walk in the door: Bob and Edith’s. The smell is the first thing to pull your soul back into its seat; pancakes, waffles, eggs, bacon, coffee, undertones of either chopped garlic or onions on some kind of red meat, and a lingering sweet smell of whipped cream or maple syrup. Then, it’s the sounds; frying meat, bubbling coffee pots, chattering night-hawks, orders being yelled back and forth. Suddenly, I no longer care about the glaring fluorescent lights. I no longer care about the spirit-stomping land of Arlington outside, or the ceaseless sounds of the highway. I am at peace, in my happy place, with a waffle.
The Tastee Diner (Bethesda, Laurel, Silver Spring)
Remember how Diners began as physical railcars pulled off the tracks, and set up as permanent structures? That’s how the Tastee Diner in Silver Spring began back in the 1930’s. The little suburb, just North of the District Line, began to grow at the turn of the last Century. Washington D.C. became more urbanized, and more densely populate. Some of the inhabitants missed the pre-1900 sleepy feeling of the District, and moved North of town, into what’s now known as Silver Spring.
Along the way, the Tastee Diner put down roots. Again, this is simple food at its best, and they’re open 24 hours. The pancakes are excellent, and the burgers are perfectly satisfying. The milkshakes, however, are one of the Diner‘s new calling cards. Roxanne, a longtime Tastee server, began fooling around with the milkshake machine a few years back. Traditionally, Diners keep their milkshakes to vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. Incorporating a little bit of innovation and a couple new flavors, Roxanne’s put together a new fleet of delicious frozen offerings. I highly recommend the “Peppermint Patty,” or the “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.”
To be clear, these are nothing like the overblown, expensive, and glorified counterparts at Ted’s Bulletin. These aren’t the kitschy versions served in old-fashioned, “vintage” glasses with re-striped paper straws at Silver Diner. They’re simple milkshakes, made with a little creativity by someone who cares about her craft. I wish I could see more of this in the new places that open up every week in the District.
Going back to what Chef TJ and my buddy Andy said earlier, this is a family mentality. Good food is meant to bring people together, regardless of their origins, economic standing, or level of intoxication. Diners provide food for all people, from all walks. The simpler the food, the stronger the connection between Diners and their patrons will be.
…that is, unless you’re trying to order a Bellini with your eggs Benedict. If you try that at any of these Diners, you’ll be asked to go back home and make it yourself.