There is a clock in Bob and Edith's Diner, but it doesn't really matter.
Nearly any time of day or night, the grill is covered with sizzling eggs and home fries. At the diner, at 2310 Columbia Pike in Arlington, it's breakfast all day long.
Dawn, midafternoon or dinner time, the tiny parking lot is crammed with cars, the counter lined with kibitzing customers. They wear camouflage fatigues and Navy pin stripes, designer jeans and grease-stained uniforms.
The ones in the booths usually read the menu card and sometimes put quarters in the jukebox. The regulars don't bother. They come because at this tiny restaurant, survivor of a dying breed, they can get coffee and conversation 24 hours a day.
"Most of the time, I order the special," Spurgeon Day of Arlington said one morning last week as he perched on a yellow counter seat. He ordered his home fries well done.
On this strip of Columbia Pike, Bob and Edith's is hard to find, tucked into a string of gas stations, supermarkets, fast food joints and newer, bigger restaurants.
Bob Bolton bought the diner in 1969, the year McDonald's sold its 5 billionth hamburger. Fast food was flourishing and many local diners, unable to match the franchise's high volume, died with the decade.
Queries about other diners in the Washington area met with flat silence and puzzled expressions from some, a few tentative guesses from others -- Ed's near Fairfax Circle and the 24-hour Little Tavern restaurants.
"Diners? What do you mean by that?" asked the receptionist at the District Chamber of Commerce.
"What's a diner?" asked the woman who answered the phone at the Alexandria Tourist Council. Barbara Janney, director of the council, thought for a minute, then mentioned a hamburger stand that "looks like a diner . . . but an actual, old, functioning diner where you can go in and get fried eggs? With all the white tile? I can't think of one anywhere in the city."
Bob and Edith's doesn't have white tile, Formica or the streamlined chrome of the original railroad car diners. Slightly cluttered, with Redskins memorabilia and Bolton baby pictures on the wall near the door, the tiny restaurant feels more like a large kitchen in a home full of football fans.
Inside, the decor is no-nonsense -- plain flatware, white ceramic coffee mugs, black plastic ashtrays. The menu, a double-sided card with black printing, is just as simple. There is no quiche, no food with cutesy names. Just sandwiches, 95-cent hamburgers, home fries and 45-cent coffee 24 hours a day.
Bolton bought the restaurant 15 years ago, intending to give swift service and home-style food, he says. Since then, he's added tables and brought his wife, Edith, three of his four children, and a son-in-law and daughter-in-law into the business.
Regulars gather at the five counter seats for a ringside view of the Bolton circus -- an apron-clad chef, most likely one of the Bolton children, churning out eggs and bacon, eggs and home fries, eggs and country ham -- all spiced with a constant commentary on horse racing, welding, football and food.
At the counter, customer Day said, "I can see what I'm getting -- good home-cooked food. And I can see who's cooking it."
Lloyd Pomeroy, who eats breakfast at the counter nearly every morning, was silent for a minute as he watched Greg Bolton juggle a smorgasbord of eggs, bacon, pancakes and home fries, all sputtering at once on the grill.
"You could almost impose an entertainment charge," Pomeroy said.
"It's good food and good people," Jerry Tinker of Arlington said one morning as he dumped maple syrup over a grilled sandwich. "But I come here more for social reasons. It's a home diner, not like a fast food place."
Weekday mornings, most customers are skimming the newspaper. Pomeroy is reading "Stalking the Wild Pendulum," a paperback he puts on the counter beside his glass of ice water. "I'm a graduate student in social work and a certified genius and I recommend this place," he said with a smile and without being asked.
Once, Pomeroy said, Bob and Edith's closed for a week and he had to go somewhere else for breakfast. His coffee came in a Styrofoam cup. "It's sterile," he complained about the atmosphere of fast food restaurants. "There's a homeyness about this place that is lacking in those other institutional places."
Some customers come just to have breakfast at odd times. During the lunchtime rush one day last week, Sylvia Hardenburgh and her companion sat on the same side of one booth and ordered bacon and eggs. "You can't get good eggs and bacon anywhere around town at this hour," she said. "And we can get in and out of here in a half-hour."
The kitchen crew members move like a dance troupe, and the beat is definitely staccato. When shifts change at 8 a.m., Robert Jr., "Pinky," takes over grill duty for his younger brother, Greg, and the bacon doesn't miss a sizzle. Tables are whisked clean, coffee mugs refilled for remaining customers.
After dinner, but before the 2-to-4 a.m. breakfast rush when area bars close, the restaurant is quieter than usual. "Owner of a Lonely Heart" plays on the jukebox. A man sitting alone at the counter asks for a single slice of white bread and folds it carefully around three crimped pieces of bacon.
"It's an easy place to get to know people," Pomeroy says. "It's an easy kind of relationship, not intrusive."
"We have a lot of old customers who have been coming here for years," Bolton says. A slim man whose speech is as spare and no-nonsense as his menu, he hollers from the kitchen to a customer at the counter, "Give me my $5, old goat." Then he grins. "We have a lot of fun," he says.