Walter Daniels, folks say, can load a plate with corn beef hash, beans and mashed potatoes and have it waiting for you before you can walk from the front door to your seat at the counter of the Tastee 29 Diner in Fairfax City.
Daniels, who grew up on a North Carolina farm where the red clay soil was as poor as a snake and who quit school after seventh grade, won't perform his fast hash feet if he knows you don' like the stuff or if you are a stranger.
Instead, he'll say, by way of greeting, "We got fish. We got beef stew. We got chicken dumplings. We love to feed people. If you're hungry, you came to the right place."
Some folks say Walter Daniels missed his calling. "He should have been on the TV," according to Ruth Hansen, a day manager at the diner. Jim Giles, a plumber who's been eating Daniels' cooking and listening to Daniels' country-boy talk for years, says Daniels should own a restaurant. "You take a guy like Walter, one guy - he can make a restaurant."
The day manager and the plumber see bright lights and big money for Daniels because they've seen him when he's really cookin' - jaw moving, spatula scraping, eggs frying. Daniels has what might be called "short-order" charisma.
He wears a white cook's hat with his initials on both sides: "W.D." He favors paisley shirts and stained aprons. His voice is loud and honey smooth. It carries through the street-car-shaped diner like the words of a Southern evangelist preaching in a trailer house.
He fries potatoes, pushes his home-made bean soup ("I know it's home-made because I made it"), greases his grill, pours coffee, carries buckets of ice, hollers at waitresses, gets hollered at, tosses out uneaten string-beans and tells his customers about his life outside the diner: "I don't like to go places and drink because I'd rather go home, sit down and drink."
At the Tastee 29 Diner, a place where construction workers and auto mechanics come to get corn beef hash with two vegetables for $2.05, a place where the wood floor behind the counter has been rutted by 34 years of hash slingers' feet, Daniels' cackling is catchy. Waitresses yell out order; customers yell out complaints. There is one rule, however. It is printed on two signs above the counter: "After you place your order, please do not move."
Daniels, who is 57, has spent 32 years working on his short-order style. He left his father's 136-acre farm near Taylorsville, N.C., when he was 25 because there was no money. With his six brothers, he came to Washington and opened a 24-hour restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue called, oddly enough, Seven Brothers Grill.
Since then, at eateries owned with his brothers and owned by others, Daniels has been cooking. For 15 years, from 1959 to 1974, he co-owned with two brothers the Friendship Grill on Main Avenue in Fairfax City. "The main thing about the place," according to former patron Giles, "was that if you wanted more beans, you just asked for more beans."
When his brother, Garfield, sold out in 1974, Daniels left the business too. "My brother gave the business away for $2,000. I should've stayed there. I'd have $100 bills in my pocket now; I'd be loaded for bear," Daniels says.
As it is however, Daniels in one recent weekly pay check brought home $114,50. Spatula in hand, diner full of customers, Daniels bemoans his misfortune: "All my brothers are richer than me. I planted a garden and it didn't come up. I got the wrong kind of business. You get tired, but you can't retire."
Daniels, despite his claim of poverty, buys meals for sad-eyed "deadbeats" who occasionally come into the diner, according to another cook at the diner. The cook says Daniels buys old pocket knives from these people and once paid a man to sharpen his ax - the man took the ax and the money and has not returned.
Daniels has been divorced two years. His former wife, whom he married when he was 40 and she was "goin" on 15," has since remarried a Broadway, Va., chicken farmer. Daniels says he regrets nothing about his marriage and is content nowadays to "collect old coins and old women."
Daniels figures maybe he'll go back in a year or so to North Carolina to the farm his family still owns. Since the death last year of Robert Sweet, a man Daniels watched out for since the early days at the Friendship Grill, there is not much holding him to Fairfax City. Friends say Daniels kept Sweet employed as a dishwasher. Sweet died last fall, Daniels remembers, "out behind the diner in that old red car of mine."