D.C.’s diner boom shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same

on

May 12, 2016
Slim's Diner in Petworth is a more modern take on a traditional institution.

Let's play a little game. I say "diner," you think:

-- All-day breakfast

-- Big, comfy booths

-- Late-night hours

-- A place to hang out

-- "Diner," the 1982 movie classic starring Kevin Bacon, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser

The people behind a wave of new and upcoming diners around Washington are counting on these and other fond associations to get you into the door of their eateries that are taking a page out of classic Americana and, more often than not, giving it a contemporary twist.

Next on the scene will be Slim's Diner, a Petworth restaurant brought to fruition by Paul Ruppert, the man behind Room 11 and Petworth Citizen. Still to come: Doron Petersan's plant-based Fare Well; Unconventional near the Convention CenterCommunity in Bethesda from Medium Rare owner and BGR founder Mark Bucher; and the Blue Diner on H Street NE. All these concepts join longtime staples such as Maryland's three Tastee Diners, American City Diner in Chevy Chase and Bob and Edith's in Arlington, which now also has locations in Springfield and Crystal City.

Situated on a corner lot with big windows like something out of an Edward Hopper painting, Slim's evokes a bygone era with design flourishes such as red banquettes and chrome stools at the eat-in counter. But contemporary elements such as the exposed brick walls and geometric-patterned wallpaper root it in modern times as well.

The goal is to create something that's "traditional but not necessarily nostalgic," Ruppert said. Slim's, which Ruppert hopes will be open in two weeks, won't be a "fancified diner," he said. The menu is composed of standard, accessible fare such as omelets, buttermilk pancakes, tuna sandwiches, BLTs, egg creams and a rotating selection of American desserts that will fill a display case by the entrance.

"There are no surprises food-wise," Ruppert said. "You don't have to have special knowledge."

In its classic form, "The food in a diner is . . . common food. There may be a deluxe cheeseburger in a diner, but there's not going to be pate de foie gras," said Michael Stern, who's long been eating at them in the course of his nearly 40 years researching "Roadfood," the book and website for regional eats he curates with his ex-wife, Jane Stern. "You go to a diner to eat a square meal."

"Their appeal has always been that, for one thing, they don't depend on any kind of culinary trend whatsoever," Stern said. "Their menus are kind of in memorial." To the extent that they pushed the edge, it was with ethnic-lite interpretations of such cuisines as Greek, Jewish and Italian, Stern said.

You can't quite call it a paradigm shift, but changes are afoot.

Everything old is new again -- again

Diners are "an ever changing yet ever constant thing," said Richard Gutman, the director and curator of the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., and author of "American Diner Then and Now." He's been studying them since the 1970s.

"Everything gets repeated and revived and reinterpreted," Gutman said. "The building and the concept can be a chameleon to produce whatever the market or customer in combination with the restaurateur want to do."

For Bucher, that means injecting a more "urban hip" vibe to Community, which he hopes to open this summer. Expect pancakes, omelets, fried chicken, burgers and huge desserts, but "it'll morph into a lounge a night," he said.

Petersan, who grew up going to diners in her native New York, is basing Fare Well, opening soon, on a concept that some may consider an even more radical departure. As you might guess based on her first venture, the dairy-, meat- and egg-free Sticky Fingers, Fare Well's offerings will be entirely vegan, though Petersan eschews the label in favor of "plant-based."

Like a number of her colleagues, including Bucher and Ruppert, Petersan is cutting back on the size of her menu, at least compared to the pages-long affairs you can find elsewhere. Fare Well will serve food such as veggie burgers and pastas. Some dishes will include vegan cheese made with almonds, coconut or cashews.

Silver Diner, the locally-based chain founded in 1988 with a straight-out-of-doo-wop environment, started trying to adapt the diner for 21st-century customers in 2008, said co-founder and vice president of culinary operations Ype Von Hengst. The chef said efforts included adding heart-healthy items, removing trans fat from all dishes, creating a more nutritious kids' menu and emphasizing "fresh and local" ingredients, two of the most en vogue words in the industry today.

Von Hengst said Silver Diner now refers to its offerings as "flexitarian," with more options for vegans and vegetarians.

The brand took its update a step further when it opened Silver -- "the heart of a diner and style of a brasserie" -- in downtown Bethesda in 2015. The menu at Silver is about an even division between Silver Diner staples (caramel french toast), updates on those staples (the reuben with aged gruyere, applekraut and house remoulade) and totally new dishes (hanger steak with chimichurri), Von Hengst said.

Silver takes its design cues primarily from 1920s art deco style rather than the '40s or '50s feel of its sister restaurants, with sleeker fixtures, less neon and more wood than chrome.

Olivia's Diner, which opened last summer in Dupont Circle, adopted a similarly muted approach to its decor. There are booths, but they are tan, sleek and modern, situated under pendant lighting and across from a marble-topped bar. Still, on a recent afternoon you could look around and see many people were not feasting on entrees such as fish and chips or steak frites but rather breakfast fare including eggs and pancakes.

Why diners, why now

Bucher said he thinks the resurgent affinity for breakfast -- hey, we can eat eggs again -- is part of the reason more diners are cropping up these days. He also speculated that, even with the subtle creep of contemporary food trends, diners may be a response to the many "cuisine-driven concepts opening up" around Washington. We were missing more of the "catch-all" type of eateries, Bucher said.

A diner "serves every purpose, and I love that," Petersan agreed. "D.C. for a lot of reasons has never had a lot of things that are associated with blue-collar culture," as diners are. Now, she said, people want a "a richer culture in food and entertainment" that includes go-to neighborhood spots.