Open daily from 11 a.m. to at least 11 p.m. No credit cards. No reservations. Sandwiches, $1.40 to $2.25, main dishes average $3.
Adams - Morgan has been taking hustle lessons from Georgetown as its neighborhood bars and Latin restaurants have had their blocks busted by haute art discos and Gallic professionalism.
Once, Columbia Road was a solid phalanx of Latin coking ranging from earthy, bottom-priced Omega, Churreria Madrid and Carlos Gardel to more ornate dining at El Caribe and El Dorado. Most recently, El Rincon Espanol added a new ingredient to the Latin pot. But well before that, along came Columbia Station, a youthful pub. Then a seafood carryout. La Fourchette opened down 18th Street, matured from cafe to full-menu French dining, and is now one of the best unsung, moderately priced restaurants in town. Capitol Hill's Gandy Dancer spun off the Biltmore, but apparently found that incompetent cooking was noticed even in a disco, so has been changing - hopefully upgrading - its menu. Farther down towards 16th Street, the tiny late-night Eurasian Taste presented this city's first English-and-Spanish language Chinese menu, with a few African dishes and attempts at international dining. But chefs and menus have been changing there so often it may become a habit.
Thus, while the newcomers settle in, it is time to take a fresh look at the old-time neighborhood bars, which have been dressing up with the neighborhood. Two of them, particularly, now have good home cooking on tap.
Somebody once wore a suit to Millie & Al's, and that was good for several days' conversation. A fight at the bar, on the other hand, might or might not raise eyes from staring deep into beer mugs.
Inside looks like a bus station, despite its long bar and tables and even though it is decorated with homey touches like cafe curtains and pictures of winsome puppies. The most impressive thing about the outfitting of Millie & Al's is that it has not one, but two, pay phones. "Is Jim here?" shouts a waiter after one rings.
The joint has class: a sign begs that you place your order with the waitress, not with the chef. It has cultural identity: the juke box alternates rock and salsa. It has history: the dinner plates identify their origins as the Sulgrave Club, the Army & Navy Club and such, at least the plates that are not flowered Melmac.
It doesn't matter what you wear to Millie & Al's, but hats are in vogue. One cowboy hat is constantly seen at the bar - maybe not the same cowboy hat or the same wearer, but it seems so. And one always sees some faded ancient lady talking to herself - really conversing, not just muttering.
Don't jump to conclusions that the cooking is as disheveled as the ambience. The waitress - a sympathetic soul - sets your table with paper placemats and napkins, lines up the grated parmesan, the red pepper flakes, the salt and pepper, all of the above in jars with holes punched in their tops. She positions big mugs of beer (70 cents draft) on cardboard coasters. Then come rolls - homemade rolls, for heaven's sake - crusty and weighty. You can start with a huge plate of vegetable soup, its pale broth fragrant and meaty, floating potatoes and black-eyed peas and macaroni. It is enough in itself, a $1 meal. But there is also pizza, the crunchy crust homemade, the sausage seasoned with punch. It is not great pizza, but certainly good eating, and a small one costs only $1.65 plus 35 cents for toppings. Most endearing, it is garnished with a sprig of parsley.
Most of the menu is Italian, everyday sorts of spaghetti, lasagne, manicotti and chicken cacciatore, none of it priced over $3.25 except steak. A sizeable but chewy sirloin costs $4; it is a dry old cut, but it comes with canned baby carrots and peas - shades of French kitchens! - and mashed potatoes with a lake of mushroom gravy. The menu has Latin obeisance to the neighborhood - a decent yellow arroz con pollo and empanadas. For dessert, a great cut of rum-drenched cake with red and green sprinkles on top; a dense, nostalgic bread pudding with a pour of maple syrup and an orange zest. It is a hunk of a meal and a heck of an experience, and the only place in town where, after a $5 meal, the chef comes out to do his rounds of greeting the guests just like in France.