Hours: Open 24 hours daily.
Atmosphere: Casual and comfortable.
Price range: From $1.35 for children's menu to $7.25 for an adult steak dinner.
Credit cards: Mastercard and Visa.
Reservations: Not required.
Special features: Highchairs, accessible to wheelchairs, free parking.
A family out on the prowl for good cheap American food will find it at Uncle John's.
The restaurant, located at the corner of Old Court House Road and Route 123 in Vienna, is one of two Uncle John's franchise restaurants in the Washington area, with more planned; the other is in Rockville. It's clean, well-lighted and suitable for the whole family.
Cozy and comfortable, the restaurant has a decor that's oddly appealing. It's a Walt Disney-like attempt to create an idealized turn-of-the-century motif, with mansard roof, slate, brass, gaslight lamps, fireplace and even an antique bicycle in the entrance. All the decorations are fake, but that doesn't take away from their charm.
Uncle John's menu, though, is an authentic attempt to provide in a family setting the kind of food Americans seem to like best. The menu includes a hamburger section, quiche, omelets, pancakes, a simple sandwich board and a universe of desserts. And there is a children's menu that offers simple versions of the adult dishes.
In-house specials are offered daily. On one recent Friday night, the special--a complete dinner for two adults, including everything from appetizers to dessert--cost $14.95. That night, the special included four choices: shrimp, steak, chicken or rib dinners.
Our family had chosen that night to tumble into Uncle John's ravenous and cranky after stomping through the cold night air. Our 4-year-old immediately found what he wanted in the children's menu, the $1.35 spaghetti plate. Our 7-year-old stuck to the adult fare and tromped off to the salad bar for all she could eat before settling down to her $3.65 cheeseburger, with sesame bun, tomato and pickle, cole slaw and french fries.
The adults decided on the special dinner offering, my wife choosing the chicken while I tried the shrimp. A chicken soup started the meal for us, and although it was adequate, we were tempted to send it back to be warmed up. The salad bar made up for that disappointment, as Uncle John's provides lots of what makes a salad worthwhile and keeps the greens fresh and crunchy.
My shrimp dinner, with french fries, cole slaw and green beans, was outstanding, loaded with deep-fried shrimp and fresh hot vegetables. The chicken was crisp, tasty and warm, and my wife reported that the vegetables passed the mark.
Our baby sitter, she of the unending appetite and growing sophistication about food, started with an Italian vegetable soup ($1.25) that wasn't hot enough but was tasty and interestingly textured with diced vegetables. Her crepes a' la king ($4.95) was absolutely the dish of the evening: two fluffy crepes in a creamy mushroom sauce with chunks of chicken, peas and Parmesan cheese.
Something called a hot fudge sundae imperial ($2.35) laid me low for dessert: a huge swirling pile of soft vanilla ice cream loaded with whipped cream, nuts and liberally slathered with hot fudge. (Uncle John's also has a do-it-yourself sundae bar with a carousel of toppings from which you can select.)
My wife's chocolate cake ($1.50) was fresh and chocolatey and must have weighed a pound--heavenly. The little ones picked from our plates and seemed to be happy with the chocolate sundae junior ($1.25), a miniature version of the giant I wolfed down.
We've been back several times since and find only small things to complain about: food not hot enough, an inattentive waitress now and again. But one facet of Uncle John's operation never pleases us. For a restaurant that stays open 24 hours a day and serves breakfast at any time, Uncle John's has consistently disappointing breakfasts.
The Great Gatsby Breakfast is two eggs, hash browns, three strips of bacon or sausage, with toast and jelly. I found this $3.75 offering to be completely inadequate, however. The eggs were tiny and the hash browns were tasteless frozen factory patties zapped hot in the kitchen. Nor did any of the other dishes seem worth the trip to Uncle John's; there are drugstores with breakfasts of better value.
Except for that, Uncle John's stays on our list of cheapie American eateries destined never to receive a Michelin star but where we can count on simple fare at family prices.