- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 5, 2001

Dozens of patrons lined up outside Sholl's Colonial Cafeteria at 19th and K streets NW yesterday, their hunger tormented by the wafting aroma of spaghetti and meatballs, steak and gravy.
They were greeted by a sign in the nearby window announcing a sad farewell: "We must inform you that Wednesday, Dec. 5, will be our last day to serve you. We hope you understand that we have done everything in our power to keep Sholl's open."
The 74-year-old downtown haunt has reached the end of the line after serving countless government employees, retirees, street people, senators and presidents. While business has steadily dwindled over the years, the aftermath of September 11 left travel groups rushing to cancel reservations that had stretched into next summer.
"It's a sad day," said George Fleishell, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Van. "But business has dropped 25 percent since September 11, and more than 75 percent of our tour groups have canceled. We realized we just can't do this anymore."
He said high rents and changing tastes have decreased a lunchtime crowd of 1,800 to about 400 over the past decade.
"We are hard to find," he said. "And when people became more affluent, they searched for places that would provide table service."
Two years ago, a 25 percent rent increase almost forced Sholl's out of business, but loyal fans of the cafeteria organized and staged protests. The landlord of the K Street office building scaled back the increase.
Now, the owner said, there is little anyone can do to save Sholl's.
So today, the homey, softly-lit cafeteria will serve its last chopped steak and mashed potatoes and apple pie. The industrial kitchen will grow silent and its employees many whom have worked at the restaurant for decades will look for work elsewhere or retire.
Cashiers Elsy Abouelela and Bsung Tian know the price of items and their customers by heart after two decades with the restaurant. They expressed surprise and sadness to see the place close.
"I'll probably retire," said Mrs. Tian.
The patrons came yesterday to say goodbye to them, the comfort of their familiar haunt and their favorite foods.
"I am going to miss the desserts," said Barbara Lyles, a government employee who has been frequenting the cafeteria for more than a decade. "It has always been hard to decide which one to have. I am so disappointed. It's the only place around here to get a good home-cooked meal."
She said she would return today for lunch and possibly her favorite chocolate creme pie.
Ernest Stevens has been eating lunch at Sholl's three to four times a week for two decades. Now, he says, he will just heat up Healthy Choice frozen meals in the microwave in his office.
"This is awful," he said of the closing. "The food was homemade and healthy, and at a reasonable price. This is too bad."
Inside the packed restaurant, seniors, students, government employees and street people mingled, devoured gravy and mashed potatoes and shook their heads sadly when asked about the closure.
The Fleishells said there is a 50-50 chance they may open elsewhere in Washington.
"If we had this much business every day, we would not need to close," Mr. Fleishell said. "If we find another location, we will start up again. Otherwise, I will just retire."
"We have everyone in here," he added. "President Harry Truman once ate here. Sen. Max Cleland, [Georgia Democrat,] is a regular. Our customers turn into personal friends."
Like "John," he says. A decade ago, "John" growled when asked "how he was doing" and just wanted to count his pennies for his meal in peace.
Then one day, Mr. Fleishell recalled, he asked John what his name was.
"Why do you want to know," was the answer.
"So I don't have to call you "Hey you," Mr. Fleishell replied.
"John," the man said.
Mr. Fleishell offered his hand.
"Since then, they have been friends," Mr. Fleishell said. John even asked Mr. Fleishell to stash some money away for him "in case he doesn't have any one day."
"He's great," Mr. Fleishell said. "He never cheats you by even a penny and is the friendliest customer I have."
Yesterday, the son of a regular customer came to pay his respects to the restaurant his mother loved and to the mother he misses.
Thomas Roberson of Landover celebrated his 42nd birthday with chopped steak, rice and beans in memory of his mother, Doris, who died last year.
"My mother loved this place and came here regularly, even after she lost her job in the 1980s," he said. "So I came here today to honor her."

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