WASHINGTON is just one generation away from the sleepy Southern hamlet that virtually closed down during July and August.
Nightlife in the 1930s, writes David Brinkley in "Washington Goes to War," was "a screen porch and a bridge game. The players found that in the damp heat the cards stuck together and stuck to the table. The wire screening filled with droplets of moisture that splattered to the floor when insects attracted to the light slammed themselves against the screen, drumming and shaking the wire. And there was the iron moan of a trolley car turning a curve on Wisconsin Avenue, the hum of the black Westinghouse fan with its brass blades rotating on the floor."
White suits and Panamas for men and gloves and hats for the women were de rigueur summer attire (except for the British ambassador who was allowed to wear shorts, knee socks and a pith helmet at his "tropical" post). It was a city of few restaurants, theaters or commuters.
Some of the small town remains in modern Washington, but it is not to be sought in the trendy new retro-diners or the glitzy renovations of the Old Post Office or Union Station. For the inquisitive, small-town Washington can be found in family-owned businesses, down-home restaurants and neighborhood ball fields. These are the best places to go back to a time before air conditioning, Metro, the Kennedy Center or the National Gallery's East Wing had come to the District of Columbia. THE HITCHING POST
A meal at the Hitching Post not only includes old-style Southern home cooking, but dining companions worthy of an Anne Tyler novel. Regulars come from the Soldiers and Airmens Home across the street; others have heard of the Hitching Post by word of mouth. There's no sign out front and nothing distinguishes it from the other houses on the mainly residential block.
For the past 23 years owners Adrienne and Alvin Carter have treated customers like guests, doling out huge portions of black-eyed peas, chili, gumbo, greens, sympathy and advice. The Carters won't let their customers go away either thin or dispirited. Specials are listed above the counter next to faded college pennants. Each menu is different, handwritten in blue spiral-bound notebooks. The food arrives spasmodically, in no particular order and may not be what you expect. The trout sandwich turns out to be a huge platter of fresh trout -- enough for two -- with two slices of bread on the side. The chicken sandwich is half of the best-tasting fried chicken in the city -- with two slices of bread on the side.
A meal at the Hitching Post defies time. Settle into the hot pink vinyl booths. Chat with the regulars (police chief turned mayoral candidate Maurice Turner was a recent lunch guest) and check out the jukebox: Perry Como, B. B. King, Aretha Franklin, a selection as eclectic as the clientele.
Buy a beer and raise a silent toast to the Hitching Post and its rare combination of good food and old-fashioned hospitality.
THE HITCHING POST -- 200 Upshur St. NW, 726-1511. Open Tuesday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. SIMEON'S BOOK SHOP
Simeon's is the kind of independent book store you used to find on Main Street in every American small town. It's a tiny 1920s shop with a little bit of everything, tucked away on a side street off Wisconsin Avenue in Cleveland Park. The owner and her employees know and appreciate books. If you can't find it, they'll look for it. If they can't find it, they'll order it.
Simeon's longtime owner, Frances Diem, died last year and for several months the shop looked like it would fold. In walked neighbor Janie Hulme, a devoted bibliophile who bought the store and set out to make changes that would improve business, but not alienate old customers of more than 25 years.
Though Hulme says that Simeon's is a general-interest bookstore, she adds that "most of our customers don't want what the general public wants . . . . Our customers are well-traveled, politically astute and well-educated." Simeon's has always offered books by Washington authors. Now Hulme has beefed up the politics and history sections and strengthened the classics to help the rejuvenated shop survive.
She's also making subtle changes in the shop's look. In the fall the drop ceiling will come down to reveal the original pressed tin ceiling. Hulme will put in better lighting and has cleaned and polished the brass frieze on the outside. The improvement is like seeing a dear, old friend in a flattering new dress.
In homage to the area that supports it, Simeon's will change its name in the fall to the Cleveland Park Book Shop.
SIMEON'S -- 3706 Macomb St. NW, 363-1112. Open Monday through Wednesday and Saturdays 10 to 6, Thursday and Friday 10 to 9. Closed Sundays. "GOSPEL SPOTLIGHT"
As a boy growing up in Richmond, Ernest White often listened to local radio shows that combined gospel music with listener call-in. The shows were an audio town meeting for a black community that would call to simply chat with the DJ.
White developed "Gospel Spotlight" on WDCU-FM with the same format, but gave it a harder, more topical edge. Listening to the show is like eavesdropping on a neighbor's over-the-fence discussion -- but the neighborhood in question is urban Washington.
White and his loyal listeners discuss contemporary issues like the role of the church in the black community, leadership in the city and even racism in gospel music. Interspersed with the conversation is gospel music -- which White calls a "staple in the African-American community" -- from groups such as the Richard Smallwood Singers, the Winans and the Redeeming Souls.
White's average listener, he says, is "35, well-read, and well-educated" and turns to the show for fodder for the brain and music for the soul.
GOSPEL SPOTLIGHT -- Airs Sunday mornings from 10 to noon on WDCU -- 90.1 FM. SHERRILL'S BAKERY & RESTAURANT
Fame has not changed Sherrill's. In 1989 an independently-produced documentary, "Fine Food, Fine Pastry, Open 6-9," was released about the 75-year-old restaurant. Nominated for an Academy Award, "it lost out to the film about the Johnstown Flood," says Dorothy Polito, one of Sherrill's three owners.
Sherrill's menu was developed before cooking became cuisine. At breakfast choose from french toast, hotcakes, grits, and sausage and eggs. Lunch and dinner selections sound like they came out of a Betty Crocker Cookbook circa 1950 and include meat loaf, veal cutlets and turkey. Every day Sherrill's offers a different variety of homemade soup. In case you still miss home, there's always a hovering waitress who looks like she's going to tell you that you can't have dessert unless you eat your peas. One, Vergie Chomicz (nicknamed Tommie), has been working at Sherrill's since 1941, the last time the restaurant changed hands.
Famous customers? Polito says, "A few . . . Marlo Thomas and Leo Durocher, before he went on a diet, and a few congressmen, but basically for a lot of older people this is their everyday eating place."
SHERRILL'S BAKERY & RESTAURANT -- 233 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 544-2480. Open weekdays 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., weekends 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. NEW MORNING FARM
Only 50 years ago it was common for Washingtonians to buy goods and services from trucks that wended their way through their neighborhood. Truck vendors sharpened knives, delivered milk and eggs and sold produce, advertising their wares by clanging bells. But gradually the rumble of their wheels grew quiet.
New Morning Farm is the successful exception. For 18 years Jim and Moie Kemball Crawford have been bringing their produce, eggs and baked goods to Washington and selling them from their trucks. It's a pick-it-and-bag-it-yourself operation and many customers bring their own English-style shopping baskets. All produce is seasonal -- peaches, apples, corn, cut flowers, tomatoes, green peppers, herbs -- and most is organically grown. The Crawfords also sell luscious pies, cookies and brownies made by Mary Lou McCoy, their Hustontown, Penn., neighbor. The Crawfords have added cheeses made in Ohio and Vermont and McCutcheon's honey and jam, as well as bread from Washington's Women's Community Bakery.
NEW MORNING FARM -- 814/448-3904. Summer, fall and winter hours are Saturdays from 8 to 11 at 36th Street and Alton Place NW, from 11 to 1 at 35th and Newark streets NW, from 2:30 to 3:30 at 44th and Volta streets NW and from 4 to 5:30 at 37th and Whitehaven streets NW. Summer only: Tuesday evenings from 5 to 6:30 at Arkansas and 13th streets NW, from 5 to 6:30 at Reno Road and Warren Street NW and from 7 to 8 at 37th and Whitehaven streets NW; Saturdays from 8 to 1 at the Adams-Morgan Organic Farmers Market at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW. FLORIDA AVENUE GRILL
Forty-four years ago the Wilson family, only a decade removed from North Carolina, opened the Florida Avenue Grill with three stools and a kitchen in their basement. Now the Grill has 39 seats and a kitchen on the first floor, but the Wilsons still serve the same North Carolina soul food. The Grill is a favorite of cab drivers, but attracts celebrities such as Jesse Jackson, Don King, Marion Barry and Natalie Cole as well.
Lacey Wilson Jr., son of the Grill's founder, says that his children have no interest in keeping the restaurant going after he retires.
"Restaurant work is too confining for younger people, but I expect I'll keep it open another 10 years if my health holds out," he says.
A decade is plenty of time to sample the Grill's country ham, baked chicken, chitterlings (the favorite item on the menu, according to Wilson) and hot corn muffins served by waitresses who have worked there for more than a quarter of a century.
Wilson says he has no plans to change anything at the Florida Avenue Grill. Why tamper with success?
FLORIDA AVENUE GRILL -- 1100 Florida Ave. NW. 265-1586. Open daily except Sunday 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. WOMEN'S FAST-PITCH SOFTBALL
Until 20 years ago the Washington neighborhood of Burleith, north of Georgetown and south of Cathedral Heights, was an unpretentious working class area of small semidetached and row houses. The demand for a Georgetown address created the real estate agent's fantasy "North Georgetown" and Burleith merged with its tonier neighbor.
Now women's fast-pitch softball at the Guy Mason Recreation Center off Wisconsin Avenue is a reminder of Burleith's roots.
The popularity of slow-pitch softball has eroded the number of women's fast-pitch teams in the city league from 10 to five, but those five are tenacious and some players have been together for years, on teams such as Arlington Auto Care, the Plain Americans and the Metros (formerly Metropolitan Poultry).
The crowd is as serious as the players. Though some people saunter over, ice cream in hand, to pass the time for a few innings, many assiduously follow their favorite teams, keeping their own score cards and cheering familiar mantras.
"Concentrate, concentrate, concentrate!"
"Come on, Suzette, come on!"
Women's fast-pitch softball satisfies that primal urge to listen to the snap of a ball in a glove and the crack of a bat on a summer's night.
WOMEN'S FAST-PITCH season at Guy Mason Recreation Center has just ended. The season runs from the end of May through early August at the center, 3600 Calvert St. NW. Championship games will be played in mid-August at the field at 23rd Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Call 767-8363 for details. TAKOMA PARK FARMERS MARKET
Founded as a religious community by the Seventh-Day Adventists at the turn of the century, Takoma Park has always been a place apart, despite its proximity to Washington. Rather than being swallowed by the city's urban sprawl, Takoma Park, with its eclectic architecture, feels more like a town in New England.
Every Sunday, from spring through fall, Takoma Park has a farmers market with fresh vegetables, fruits, baked goods, cut flowers and bedding plants for sale. Now in its eighth season, the market draws all types of Takoma Park residents -- the yuppies in search of more affordable housing, the counterculture from the '60s, young families with children in tow and longtime Takoma Park residents.
Organic farmers dominate the market and the rule is that everything sold is produced by the seller. Farmers are more than happy to tell you their production techniques -- they're not a crowd who believes in better living through chemistry.
TAKOMA PARK FARMERS MARKET -- Laurel Avenue between Eastern and Carroll avenues in Takoma Old Town. 270-1700. Held April through November on Sundays from 10 to 2.
Alice Leccese Powers makes her home in small-town Cleveland Park.