Your neighborhood restaurant

I say that I lived in DC for 11 years, but really, about half of that time I lived just across the River Potomac in Arlington, Virginia. The southern part of the city was littered with G.I. Bill-era condominiums, depressing in their seemingly unending beige-ness, save the small rectangular swatches of orange, avocado green, or chocolate brown that were strategically affixed to the outside plaster walls. Row upon row of chunky modern buildings stymied many a newcomer who was driving in for some party or other, and who would likely mention, at some point in the evening and against their better judgment, that the roads were confusing. This was really a standby phrase for, “This place sucks,” or “How the hell can you live here,” two questions I heard with some frequency from the people who were closer to me.

Commuting didn’t seem that hard, after all, it was only a bus, generally on time, to the Pentagon Metro station, and then either a 40-minute ride if you took the Blue Line or a 25-minute ride if you caught the Yellow Line, to the Foggy Bottom Metro station, which then gave way to a 10-minute walk. Of course you could forgo the Blue Line train and hope the next one coming was a Yellow Line, but most folks had the same stratergy, and it was challenging to get oneself on the car, as the platform would have swelled with Blue Line eschewing people.

Okay, okay, commuting sucked. At some point Metro installed display screens in all of the stations that broadcast when the next trains would be arriving and which lines they were on. It took away some of the confusion, and a modicum of the stress. Now one didn’t have to hurl themselves into a train car so much as stand right on the edge of the track and sneak their way onto the car. This did draw the risk that the driver, seeing people too close to the precipice, would honk the horn, which meant that one was startled and had to cling onto the next neurotic to avoid accidentally falling onto the tracks. And it did occur to me that though I feared not making a train, I never actually saw anyone who wanted on a train not make it, unless they hadn’t reached the platform by the time the train had pulled in. Those drivers didn’t wait around for the sun to rise.

So living in Virginia, I didn’t really feel any less of a city person, because Arlington was about as urban as DC. With some major differences.

DC didn’t have chain restaurants. Not a one that I could think of. Now then, for purposes of this discussion, we’re not talking $5 Foot Long Subway or Wendy’s, although both of them serve things that sometimes resemble food. We’re talking sit down, has a menu you can hold, has waitstaff service restaurant. There are no Ruby Tuesday’s in the District of Columbia. There is a TGIFriday’s, in the aforementioned Foggy Bottom (which is one of the most fun to say places ever, right after Virginville, PA), but other than that, the only real chain entities are the ones that specifically cater to large groups, like Buco di Beppi and The Cheesecake Factory, the latter of which is so close to the Maryland border that it barely counts as “in” the District. For the most part, DC has independent, one-of-a-kind restaurants, which I’ve always loved about the place.

Not all the residents feel this way, however. I was shocked when I heard a friend ask if, when we were planning a dinner date, please, could we maybe possibly go to the Olive Garden in Virginia? The what? The place with the never ending bowl of limp overdressed salad and spongy baguettes? Where you can practically still see the tin foil on the entrees from where they peeled off the top of the frozen dinner? Surely they were jesting.

They were dead serious. After that first terrifying request, I was more jaded to the rest, but faithfully, I would honor my friends’ wishes because I was sure they’d honor mine when I wanted to partake of Ella’s wood fired pizza, pick through a still-hot plate of real paella at my favorite tapas bar, or break through steamed crabs at Eat First in Chinatown. Hindsight shows that I was the more flexible among most of my friends, but I always thought it was amazing that with such good, affordable options in the city they wanted to hop into my SUV and get some pre-cooked crap at Ruby’s or worse, Old Country Buffet. After eating there a couple of times, I begged not to have to go there anymore. That stuff was just toxic to me. I think I’ve had nightmares about their pink-frosted sponge cake and overcooked buffalo wings.

Here in Walla Walla, we don’t have any chain restaurants. In the next town over there’s an Applebee’s, which I’ve never been to, and probably never will, even if I wind up living here for 20 years. (Note to the universe: that is not your cue to get me to live here for 20 years, okay? Thank you.)

But nobody, and I mean nobody, has suggested I eat there, or said anything approximating a request to go there for some patty melt action. I’m just disappointed that if we have to have a chain restaurant, it couldn’t be a Friendly’s. I feel like Wallyworld would benefit hugely from the massive pile of fried clam strips and overflowing peanut butter cup sundae. Okay, maybe not in the same meal. But they don’t know what they’re missing.

So I’m wondering why the urban crowd and not the rural folks want these establishments as a dining option. Maybe the cityfolk were once suburbanites. Thus they find some level of comfort in say, thinking they know what to expect in terms of the culinary fare. Or being on what they consider the pedestal of city glitterati entitles them to “slum it” with the 4-person family set at the local bedroom community’s Chili’s. After all, nothing says “mall experience” more than a little P.F. Chang’s. And the only mall in DC is the blocks-long lawn between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol. I’ve actually seen tweens grumble to their parents, all of them tourists, upset that the District mall isn’t what they had in mind. Those are shopping malls, children. This is why your teachers want you to have reading comprehension.

Walla Wallans are an adaptable, resourceful lot. You want Indian cuisine? Make friends with Shampa and her family and get an invite for dal and lamb curry. (I can attest it is very good.) Or buy a cookbook and spend some money ordering ingredients online. Or, go to Trader Joe’s 4 hours away and buy 63 of the vacuum packed lentil and chick pea side dishes for use over the long winter, because spicy lentils are like summer fruit around here.

If you want Thai, well, there are two, count em, two, Thai restaurants. One was just redesigned after the landlord and divorcing owners had a falling out, but after all the brou ha ha, there appears to be nothing different about the new place, even with the new owner. I hear they replaced the chairs. Red vinyl, make way for . . . black vinyl!

The other Thai restaurant is in the next town over. An extreme amount of kitch went into the decor, which showcases a couple of kinds of linoleum flooring, some discolored tableclothes set protectively under plexiglass, a whole host of plastic sculpture designed to inform patrons about the wonders of Thailand, and many mismatched Asian-inspired drawings on the wall. It is owned and run by a white man and his Thai bride, the former of whom runs the front of the house, and the latter of whom does the cooking. When they’re having a bad night together her food gets increasingly spicy, which is perhaps her strategy for getting out of the restaurant business. A culinary cry for help, as it were. But really this tendency means two things:

1. get there early

2. really early, as they close at 8PM.

Another saying around town is “Never eat Chinese food in Walla Walla if you can help it.” No really, that’s a saying around town. While Susanne’s brother was a fan of a local Chinese restaurant, we didn’t find it particularly inspiring. I hate when food only can remind you of better food you’re not currently eating. That’s this place. Milk toast, mediocre, not gut-or-anus-clenching bad, but just kind of bland and not worth the money you just spent on it. There’s also an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, but I’ve already admitted to my buffet misgivings. By the way, Walla Walla does have an American/Italian all-you-can-eat buffet; one day when we didn’t realize what it was (we were thinking they had pizza), we walked in and were astounded to see a warning sign at the front door, which read:

THIS ESTABLISHMENT USES SULFIDES FOR PRESERVATIVES. ASK YOUR WAITER FOR INFORMATION IF YOU HAVE ALLERGIES.

Oh, waiter, can you tell me which of these buffet items will kill me?

We turned around and left. And craving pizza.

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2 Comments on “Your neighborhood restaurant”

  1. December 18, 2009 at 7:20 pm #

    Nice post, too bad you’re not still on the Hill. There are a ton of new restaurants down on H St. and a bunch more are getting ready to open including a real diner down on Bladensburg Rd. across the street from Jimmy Valentine’s.

    • evmaroon
      December 18, 2009 at 7:29 pm #

      Good thing we’ll be there soon! Grab your family and let’s go to one of these new places…

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