- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 27, 2002

It's 3 a.m. You're on the road, but no one else is. You're lonely, but more important, you're hungry and you're stumped: Everyone knows you cannot get a meal after midnight around here.
Not so fast. Washington isn't New York, where the city never sleeps, but famished denizens out for the night still can cadge a bite if they know where to look. The place to look for is the late-night diner, where the staff will share your loneliness and feed your hunger.
It's easy to find one to suit your style. Some patrons grow so fond of a diner, they return again and again. Witness the outcry when the Tastee Diner of Bethesda caught fire Friday night. The blaze caused $250,000 worth of damage and untold broken hearts and shut the place for at least a month. Loyal patrons, some of whom used to haunt the chow house at all hours, turned out to inspect the damage and pay their respects.
Though that diner is closed, other options remain. Take a look at three of the area's most famous spots. At one end of the spectrum is the Georgetown Cafe, the least dinerlike in the classic sense. The new Bob & Edith's in Arlington, south of its original, oft-written-about parent, is brighter, with a well-scrubbed, new-diner feel. Tastee Diner in Laurel there's a Tastee Diner in Silver Spring, too is roomier than its cramped, noisy sister in Bethesda, but it's still a hash house.
Awaiting you at each of them is a special breed of employee, foodies so dedicated they are willing to forgo regular sleep and put up with, shall we say, a different type of customer.
"People are really crazy," says Tamara "Tammy" Bolton, 17, a waitress at the new Bob & Edith's at 4707 Columbia Pike. "You see all types of people, and they're really crazy."
Tamara is the daughter of Greg Bolton, who owns both Bob & Edith's restaurants. She was weaned on the late-night shift at the original Bob & Edith's Diner, at 2310 Columbia Pike in Arlington. It's celebrated all over the country as the "original greasy spoon," but it's as well-known for the faded family pictures on the wall as for its cheap breakfast food.
Lots of neon lights the way to this institution, which has been in business since 1969. The line lasts forever on late Saturday nights, but during the week, you can unwind with half a dozen others, including the staff.
Not far from this bistro, about two miles, is the newer Bob & Edith's, open about a year. It's sleeker, but not disturbingly so. Blue is the color here, with blue-trimmed wood and brick on the outside. Inside, yellow laminated menus are placed on each table.
White tile dotted with black squares is the wall theme. The photos to the left of the grill are newer, including baby pictures of Tamara, now embarrassed. Also on the wall is an autographed shot of a bearded Al Gore, the former vice president, with Mr. Bolton.
The food is the same as always, though without that greasy feel. "Ask about our -price dinner special," a sign reads. Fresh cakes are in one glass case, and pastries are in another. This place is open 24 hours Thursdays through Saturdays.
"We get mostly young people," manager Peter Polio says. "They eat everything."
The new Bob & Edith's is stereotypical in that it still has that classic, wide grill facing the customers, who sit on bar stools. But to Joel Hemingway, 18, a waiter from Annandale, the new place seems very different from the original.
"The other Bob & Edith's is a melting pot," the former Domino's Pizza employee says. "This is more like a family diner."
Indeed. One customer at Bob & Edith's II grumbles, "You see the long hair and earrings, and it's enough to make you sick. It's bad for business."
You wonder what it must be like to work the odd hours. Mr. Polio, the manager, comes in at 11 p.m. and works until about 7 a.m. "I don't really have a schedule," he says.
Tamara is strictly a daytimer at the new Bob & Edith's, but she remembers doing the late-night thing at the original. She says she has seen everything on late Saturday nights, from nose rings to black business suits and prom dresses.
"Be prepared for anything," she says she would tell a new staffer starting the late-night beat. "Come in ready to take a lot of things from people."
Mr. Hemingway says he doesn't mind the late shift because the customers are pretty predictable, and in any case, he goes with the flow.
"I drink a lot of coffee, and the customers help set the mood," he says, grinning widely. "Late-shift people are drunk sometimes, but then that means they can be zealous when it comes to tips."
Mr. Hemingway turns to the cash register and looks at a customer. "How was everything, sir?"
The Hispanic customer looks at him. He can't speak English and looks to his friend for help.
"Bueno?" Mr. Hemingway asks. The man smiles and hands over his money.

If you want a more cosmopolitan, international crowd, troll up to the Georgetown Cafe at 1623 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Georgetown University students jam its tables. The green cursive neon sign welcomes you as you step up the granite steps under a maroon awning. Inside, three televisions are always on, which makes the place entertaining. Subdued lighting and wood paneling add warmth.
The prices aren't cheap we are in chi-chi town but the menu is wider than, say, at Bob & Edith's. The specialty is Middle Eastern food, such as falafel, hummus and shish kabab. This diner even has pizza. A Redskins helmet hangs on the wall. The grill is visible but behind a high wall with bar stools in front of it.
Mourad Davi, 32, the assistant manager, speaks in a low tone, folding his arms. The cafe stays open all night on Fridays and Saturdays only but on those nights, he says, a lot of students filter in after the bars close. He smiles.
"People are drunk; people are tired," he says. "People sleep at the table. They're all colors that you can imagine." His place holds about 60, so it's packed early into the morning, with most of the customers shoveling in breakfast.
"It starts warming up at about 2 to 2:30 a.m., then can go all the way to 5:30," he says. "I actually sleep a couple of hours after I come home, do a few things, then take a nap before I go in." He likes working the overnight shift on a busy Friday and Saturday night.
"It's fun," he says. "I like the pressure of working with a lot of things going on. It keeps you going." He looks around at his colleagues, two of whom are in the kitchen beyond the grill.
"We are friends here, more than just workers," he says.

Lovingly well-worn, the Tastee Diner in Laurel is one of the three owned by Gene Wilkes, a man of whom his employees speak with reverence. "He treats you with respect," says Ginny Bryant, a manager at the Bethesda diner.
Like its Bethesda counterpart, the Laurel Tastee looks about 100 years old and so do some of its customers but the eggs are fluffy, the bacon is crisp, and the coffee's nonstop.
This is a 24-seven operation. Unlike Bob & Edith's II and the Georgetown Cafe, which stay open all night on weekends only, Tastee Diner (like the original Bob & Edith's) is truly a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week diner. It's so iconic that it became the location for "The Least of These," a movie short shown Tuesday night at Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge in Northwest.
The movie purports to dramatize the isolated life of a diner owner. Here at the real thing, however, the staff is anything but isolated. Right now, it's close to midnight, and the lights are bright and business is still hopping.
The all-night shift, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., sounds like madness on the weekends, especially after 2 a.m., when the four surrounding bars let out.
"We tell 'em once to maintain," says short-order cook Daniel Simpson, 45, of the raucous customers who pour in from the bars. "Then we tell 'em again. Then we ask 'em, if they can't maintain, they're disturbing other customers, then they must leave the property. Then we call 911."
Mr. Simpson has been on the staff for 15 years. He describes the rush of business on weekends as "mental anguish."
"The waitress can come back and call in an order," he says, "and sometimes you can get six or seven orders all in your mind, because not one of the cooks here works by tickets."
During the week, the hollow-cheeked Mr. Simpson says, business slows to a trickle. It's at these times that some of Tastee's best customers are employees such as Mr. Simpson. He sits at the laminate bar, taking a whiff of his Marlboro. He's lean and tattooed, mustached and with long hair.
"It can get boring and lonely," he says, "but you can pass the time by cleaning, bringing up the stock. There's always something to do."
Besides, it's relaxed, he says. It gives everybody time to sit out in the front and yuk it up, hurling insults at each other. Or at the customers.
Dave Defrank, 40, is one of the regulars and has been for 11 years now. He works at the Laurel Race Track. Sometimes he's there to play that aggravating game of chance, Keno; other times, he comes for the prime rib.
"Sometimes it's just the company," he says, "and sometimes it's because it's cooler here than my room."
It's a peculiar neighborhood, he says. He points down the street, where he has seen drug dealers. Another place, across the street from the diner, is where he swears he saw a guy almost get run over by his own van.
"He was jump-starting it with a screwdriver while it was in gear," he says with a giggle. "He probably got arrested, probably because he was drunk."
Prep work is already beginning for the next day. A huge square plastic pan is balanced precariously on a stool out front, full of shiny silver lids for those tall sugar dispensers. (They have to be washed, too.)
Waitress Margaret Willie, 54, of Laurel has worked the late-night shift off and on for 23 years. Eating applesauce between customer orders, she says dryly, "You never adjust."
"I don't like working 10 to 6," she says firmly. "I like 6 [a.m.] to 2. You get in, you get out, and you still got the rest of the day.
"But it's OK. It pays the bills. I'd probably be in the unemployment line" otherwise.
Born and raised in Savage, Md., Ms. Willie started out as a short-order cook and now waits on customers, doing overnights twice a week. A lot of time the middle-of-the-night customers are "just people that are out and about" or regulars.
"Thank God for our regulars," she says.
"We got some humdingers," says Tee Jackson, smiling and folding her arms. Thin and wiry, with her in hair tight-knit cornrows, the short-order cook is a youthful grandmother at 41. She has cooked at the diner for eight months and works six nights a week from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
"I'm a night owl," she says, with a near twang in her voice. "I don't mind being up all night. Most jobs I've had has been up all night."
She used to work as an auto mechanic for an all-night garage in Southeast. Customers could leave their cars overnight and have them ready for work the next day. She still works on cars in the diner parking lot, drawing most of her clients by word of mouth.
"As long as I don't mess up," she says, "which I never do."
What's most important about a place like this is that it's home to so many people to the point that when Mr. Wilkes was approached by the makers of the movie "The Least of These," he refused to shut down for film production. He agreed only to allow the filmmakers to cordon off part of the diner while the rest remained open for business.
Gotta think of the customers, first and last.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide