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And not too many patrons seem to notice the old-time decor, though they like it when it's pointed out to them.
It's the atmosphere that really seems to be the draw for all the office workers, cops and construction workers who start arriving as the place opens at 5:30 a.m.
Rosa Reyes, a compact Latina who dresses up to come to work -- she moonlights doing hair -- has waitressed at the Waffle Shop for 12 years. She speaks of patrons who come by cab from Virginia and Maryland, and of one customer "who said he was in his mother's stomach the first time he came -- and now he's 40-something."
Though a D.C. native, Sgt. Andre L. Wright has been coming to the Waffle Shop only since 1994, when he started with the Metropolitan Police. Since then he's been breakfasting there about three times a week. He says he and his colleagues -- the place is often crawling with cops -- treat it "like a substation," a peaceful outpost in Northwest of their Seventh District headquarters in far Southeast. Wright explains that regulars sit at the same horseshoe of counter space each visit, to be near the waitress of their choice. Each server reigns in the center of her particular formica U. "Rosa knows what I want," Wright says, so like most longtime Waffle Shoppers he doesn't bother ordering: Within minutes of sitting down, his hot tea, cold water, bacon, waffle and scrambled eggs with cheese appear in front of him.
It's an old Waffle Shop tradition. Visit Francis Harless in her two-room apartment at 16th and Q, and the tiny 82-year-old volunteers that "the colored guy who was killed over on Capitol Hill used to order two eggs, over, with a rib-eye steak and home fries." The former waitress, who left the diner in 1995, is a little vague on which murder she's talking about, or when it took place -- but that order she still knows for sure. She boasts that she served Mayor Washington and Mayor Barry, too: "He ordered two eggs, over, bacon and home fries. I said, 'You look like Marion Barry,' and he said 'That's 'cause I am.' " When the riots happened in 1968, three years after she started working at the Waffle Shop, Harless says, the restaurant was left untouched. Out on the street, a roving gang accosted her and her boyfriend Ed -- another white employee of the Waffle Shop -- and things started to look bad: "But they said, 'She works for the Waffle Shop,' and left me alone."
Racial mix and harmony now define the restaurant. (The diner was launched, however, in the days when all of Washington was segregated. Plato Cacheris, a prominent Washington lawyer, is the son of a Greek immigrant who once co-owned the Waffle Shop chain, which used to span the city. He speaks of teenage years spent making doughnuts for an all-white clientele in the Adams Morgan branch. His brother James, now a senior judge with the U.S. District Court in Virginia, also recalls working there.)
On the morning before Thanksgiving this year, the 10th Street diner was packed, and pretty much reflected the city's demographics. About two-thirds of the patrons were black, but one corner -- the northwest one, as it happened -- hosted a group of white bureaucrats. Up front, there was also a young Asian office worker with spiky black hair and a few Latino clients.
Sandria Coombs was there as well, dressed in the brightest of bright colors and a denim hat plastered with cheery printed buttons. She's a 61-year-old black churchwoman who has been coming to the Waffle Shop four or five times a week since 1971. "Every day I come up this street, I say, 'Lord, let them be open still.' " If the diner closes, she adds, "I'll probably cry for I don't know how many days. I don't know where I'll go."
It looks likely that Coombs will be crying soon. The diner looks set to be "redeveloped" out of existence, going the way of its former, much-loved neighbors, Whitlow's Restaurant and the original Reeves bakery.
The Waffle Shop's block, recently purchased by developer Douglas Jemal, is slated to become an office complex. Though the District's Historic Preservation Review Board has unanimously ruled that Jemal's plans should include "the salvage of significant features of the old Waffle Shop" -- some of the facade or signage maybe transplanted inside -- it's very unlikely that the business itself, or even any of the building behind the current facade, will survive intact. (The National Park Service recently decided that buildings dating from as late as 1962 could count as historically "significant" to the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site, which protects this block of 10th Street. The review board's staff report argued, however, that the diner isn't old enough to deserve more substantial protection as one of the site's "contributing buildings" -- which, of course, means that it may never get the chance to grow old enough to be more fully preserved later on.)
Hai Ngo, a Vietnamese immigrant who has owned and run the diner for the past 19 years, says his lease expires next year. He is still waiting to hear whether he will be allowed to continue serving customers.
In a three-minute interview, Jemal would only say that he has "no idea" of his upcoming plans, and would not discuss the Waffle Shop's virtues or its place in the downtown mix.
Jemal is known as a hard-nosed developer, but one who also cares about the city's older buildings. "I've never had a client like him -- who will bend over backward to save something that he likes, and thinks is significant," said Shalom Baranes, Jemal's architect for the 10th Street office building, and he can cite plenty of examples to prove it. But he also acknowledges that preserving the whole diner "would probably kill the project."
If only a few fragments of the diner survive, it will be a loss to every Washingtonian. The current diner is a rare vestige of the heyday of waffles -- and Moderne design --in the District. Its last Washington sibling, with the same signage and a similar though much more modest interior, was torn down on Park Road just last year. (If only its stools had been salvaged, they could have been used to replace identical ones that sit broken on 10th Street.) One other Waffle Shop, a latecomer to the chain, remains in Alexandria.
Sally Berk is a local architectural historian and ardent activist for urban preservation. She'd love to see the Waffle Shop live on, both as an artifact and as an eatery. She hopes that Jemal will at least consider a full, working restoration. "What's wrong with a man who has got so much out of the city giving something back to the people of the city? So why not a waffle shop?" she says. "He could come out looking like a good guy."
Though the restaurant has been allowed to go a bit to seed -- there's dirt everywhere, the ceiling is a mess, and the facade's original plate glass is patched and seamed -- its great bones survive unchanged. With not much more than a splash of paint, some elbow grease and a modestly tweaked menu, one of the city's more artistic restaurateurs could restore the Waffle Shop to its former glory.
Other than Jemal's goodwill, however, only community action to have the diner named a historic landmark is likely to save the place. A landmark designation is a long shot, says David Maloney, a preservation officer for the District, noting that it could get in the way of the city's eagerness to have the whole run-down block redeveloped. "But if people feel very strongly about it, it's not too late."
As a Washington native, Berk remembers the glinting coffee shop as an icon of the thriving downtown of her childhood. It was at the heart of a neighborhood that bulged with big department stores as well as mom-and-pop retail and restaurants, with a man dressed as Mr. Peanut walking its buzzing streets.
"If the Waffle Shop is renovated in toto," Berk said, "I volunteer to walk around downtown dressed as Mrs. Peanut."