A Local Life: Roy Passin

A Local Life: Restaurateur Roy Passin Fed His Whimsy, Diners With Huge Menu

Roy Passin, owner of Roy's Place in Gaithersburg, holds the Bender Schmender, one of 200 sandwiches on the menu.
Roy Passin, owner of Roy's Place in Gaithersburg, holds the Bender Schmender, one of 200 sandwiches on the menu. (1999 Photo By Tim Sloan -- The Washington Post)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 14, 2009

It's a weekday, let's say, maybe around lunchtime, and if you're in the Olde Towne Gaithersburg area, you might drop into a red-brick restaurant on East Diamond Street called Roy's Place. Unless you're a Roy's Place regular, you won't be ordering anytime soon.

It's not that the service is bad at this family-run establishment. What will hold you up is a 20-page menu featuring 206 sandwich combinations, almost all of them created and whimsically named by Roy Passin himself, a longtime restaurateur who enjoyed life and people as much as his faithful customers enjoy his sandwiches.

"He was the restaurant, and the restaurant was him," said his eldest child, Carla Wascalus of Fredericksburg. When he died of congestive heart failure May 15, Mr. Passin had owned Roy's Place for 54 years. He was 87.

The restaurant was truly Roy's place. Not only did he spend all his time there, but the place reflects his personality -- "random, creative and extremely irreverent," in the words of another daughter, Pandora Passin of Lovettsville, Va.

Loud and profane, Mr. Passin had a temper, but the storms almost always blew over quickly. "He actually cared about his employees," said Roy's Place manager Rick Brindley, who went to work for Mr. Passin 33 years ago at 19. "He tried to bring people under his wing and help them grow."

Roy's Place is in a building Mr. Passin designed in 1971; it resembles the railroad depot at Point of Rocks in Frederick County. The large dining room features red-checked tablecloths, Tiffany-style lamp fixtures and crimson walls almost totally obscured by a motley collection of antique photos, paintings of reclining nudes, posters, prints and signs -- whatever struck his fancy on weekend jaunts to area antique stores, junk shops and flea markets.

The sandwiches, replete with literary allusions and outrageous double-entendres, are named after family members, longtime customers, local celebrities, media people and historical figures. "The Concupiscent Carla," for example, conceived when his daughter was pregnant with her first child, features broiled Swiss cheese and hot pastrami with coleslaw and Russian dressing.

"The Pocahontas," a perennial favorite despite its $17.25 price, is a trademark concoction of lobster salad, ham and Swiss cheese, all broiled on the customer's choice of bread and slathered with Roy's Golden Sauce, made from a secret recipe that is said to include honey and sherry.

"We are not a fast food outlet," the menu warns. "People who must eat on the run will not be happy here. People who enjoy real food and are willing to wait for it are our kind of customers."

"He had a lot of fun with it," Brindley said. "He loved to play with food."

Mr. Passin was born in the District and grew up around the food business before serving as an Army private during World War II. His parents ran a DGS grocery store, and he worked in the store as a kid. Although he got a degree from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and was a voracious reader his whole life, neither academia nor diplomacy was ever in his future. Food was.

He was part-owner of an Arlington County deli and worked as a wholesale food and liquor salesman before he and his first wife opened their establishment in the old Cochran Hotel in Rockville in 1955.

They bought what they thought was a nice, quiet little restaurant, but it turned out to be, in daughter Carla's words, "a real redneck bar. You'd walk in and have to duck flying beer bottles."

When that place burned down in the early 1960s, Mr. Passin moved across the street and gradually started adding more food items to the bar fare. Roy's Place became a favorite of the lunchtime courthouse crowd and remained a raucous blue-collar bar at night.

Urban renewal in the form of the now-razed Rockville Mall drove Roy's Place to Gaithersburg in 1971. By then, it was primarily a restaurant, albeit a distinctive one.

Until last spring, when his health began to fail, Mr. Passin was almost always around the restaurant -- greeting customers at the door, holding court at the bar or strolling from table to table, all the while keeping an eagle eye on food and service.

Melinda T. Passin, Mr. Passin's wife of eight years, intends to keep Roy's Place going. Whether it continues to thrive without Roy Passin's larger-than-life presence is the question loyal customers will be asking in the coming months.

"Even though he didn't believe in an afterlife, I'm sure he's up there watching over this place," Carla Wascalus said as customers at nearby tables tucked away what appeared to be "The Judy, Judy, Judy," "The Heavenly Evelyn" and "The Doc Bee" ("To know him is to kill your appetite").

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