Hours: Seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
Atmosphere: Old-fashioned diner; the real thing.
Price range: $2.35 to $7.25 for main course entrees; 95 cents to $2.45 for sandwiches.
Credit cards: No.
Special features: Accessible to patrons in wheelchairs; booster seats and highchairs for very young diners.
Maybe it's because they're a dying breed. Maybe it's because they're what early morning in a strange town used to be all about. Whatever it is, diners have an aura of romance. Not elegant, tea-for-two romance or sophisticated afternoon delight romance, but old-fashioned, the-way-things-were romance.
That's what first attracted us to the Tastee Diner in Bethesda.
The Tastee Diner's been around since l938, but last year it added a new wing to its old trailer-like dining car. The addition, complete with tile floors and mini-juke boxes on the bare wood tables, looked spacious enough to hold our group of nine: three adults and six children. It took three tables to make us truly comfortable, but there was plenty of space to spare on the Friday night we were there.
Since I was fiscally responsible for the food consumed by five of the six children, Tastee Diner's menu was nothing short of a great financial relief. Those kids would have to look hard and long to find anything they liked that was more than $3.35, and that included the specials of the night: chicken and dumplings for $2.85, macaroni and cheese for $2.35, baked fish for $2.75 and spaghetti for $3.35.
Most of these entrees and others at similar prices came with two vegetables, hot rolls and butter. If the kids didn't want a complete dinner, they could opt for a hamburger at 95 cents or a top-of-the-line rib eye steak sandwich at $2.45.
At those prices, one tends to judge food by a different standard. We didn't expect the same size or quality of fish for $2.75, for instance, as we do when the price is $8.95. However, our friend who ordered the fish found himself the proud owner of a succulent, lightly breaded, crisply fried and very ample portion of fresh perch.
He chose pickled beets and kale to go with it and found the vegetables as superb as the fish. The only disappointment was the rolls -- you could never mistake them for homemade. He also had a cup of Manhatten clam chowder, 75 cents, and said it could rank with the best chowders he's had.
The other adult orders were a $3.75 platter of grilled steak, two eggs, home fried potatoes, toast and coffee, and a $1.90 plate of bacon and eggs. The scrambled eggs on the bacon and egg order were skimpy but the bacon was superbly crisp. The fried eggs on the steak and egg order looked fuller. The steak was thin and tough and about what one would expect at that price.
Three kids tried the spaghetti with meat sauce dinner plus a fresh salad, which was an additional 75 cents; two tried the macaroni and cheese special which came with two vegetables. Our son, something of a macaroni and cheese specialist, said the dish was good but a little drier than he usually likes. He ordered mashed potatoes and applesauce as his "vegetables."
The spaghetti was on the cool, tough side, but the meat sauce was pungent, rich and pleasantly chewy. Though they professed to like it, no one who ordered the spaghetti was able to finish the portion.
One child ordered a hamburger which looked thin and dry to us. He said he liked it that way.
Our waitress, dressed in a batik-dyed T-shirt and jeans, was just the person to deal with the tittering, giggling and macho flexing of adolescent muscle in our group. She was friendly and helpful and she joked around, but she brooked no nonsense.
She also gave us honest answers about dessert. The fruit pies, she said, were "made elsewhere, arrive frozen and are baked here. The cream pies are Mrs. Morton." (Both are 75 cents a serving.)
The bread pudding and rice pudding (65 cents apiece), she assured us, were homemade. We tried them. Homemade is not necessarily synonymous with delicious. Both puddings were dry and bland, but, at 65 cents, we didn't feel we should complain too loudly.
The total bill for our party of nine came to $30.45, including tax. Our family of four's share was $13.25.