In the midst of the new downtown a bit of old Washington survives in Whitlow's, a restaurant where the owner serves drinks and the cook makes everything from scratch.
For 50 years, the restaurant and bar on the northeast corner of 11th and E streets NW has catered to the working man with big portions of home-cooked food, bargain-priced pitchers of beer, hard liquor in shot-and-a-half bottles and an 18-hour day. Closing time is 2 a.m.
"Not much has changed here over the years," said owner Gregory Cahill, 40, who bought the restaurant in 1971.
"We replaced the chairs last month because the old bentwood ones got wobbly, but the food is still the same and we still serve liquor in miniature bottles instead of pouring it."
While the dark paneled restaurant with its menus written on chalkboards has retained much of its 1930s character, a construction boom is drastically changing the face of the old commercial district, long ignored by developers.
Across E street, the Cadillac Fairview's new eight-story office building looms over the Whitlow's low-rise block with its turn-of-the-century buildings. To the west, the 13-story Columbia Square office and retail building is under construction.
Even Whitlow's, on the first floor of a three-story apartment building, is threatened by the renaissance. The Oliver T. Carr Co., the premier developer of downtown, has bought the Whitlow's building at 501 11th St. NW and seven other properties on the same block.
"The new places in those new buildings are out of range for government workers," said Charlie Hardy, a regular customer from the nearby Internal Revenue Service. "We've watched three other good places close down here. This is about the last place left."
Don "Robby" Roberts, a customer for 24 years, who retired in December from the IRS, recently drove from his suburban Virginia home to join his buddies for lunch.
"This is our table," he said as he poured himself another glass of beer from the $4.75 half-gallon pitcher of Budweiser. "The waitress always tries to hold this one for us. I like this place because it is a redneck bar and I'm a redneck."
Nellie Rutherford, a legal secretary, sat nearby reading a paperback and eating a turkey dinner.
"A lot of people are put off by the appearance of this place," she said. "But I think it feels like a home-town place. I come here because of the quality of the food. And I like to look at the characters at the bar."
Whitlow's front door stands beneath rare, 15-foot-high, vertical orange and green "Grill" and "Beer" neon signs. Although there are three windows, the restaurant's interior always appears dark because of the black and green tile floor, wood furniture and paneled walls. Four green Formica-topped tables line the wall under the windows and five more are crowded in the rest of the L-shaped room near the jukebox.
There are no ferns, but Cahill carefully tends three window boxes lush with a dense planting of shamrocks.
Next to the eight-seat bar is the kitchen where Margaret Gillum has been turning out 200 wholesome meals a day from a four-burner stove, one oven and a grill.
For 25 years she has prepared a choice of five main courses with six fresh vegetables and a soup of the day. Sometimes she likes to surprise her customers with liver and onions or turkey a la king. Each morning she roasts two turkeys and mashes the potatoes by hand.
Does she use a food processor?
"Here's my machine," she said, holding up her hands before quickly returning to chopping long stalks of celery into tiny bits on a worn slab of wood.
"This place has a homey feeling," she said as she stirred a 10-gallon pot of collard greens. "It is like my own kitchen. We all work together like a family. I put my love in my food."
Cahill, who closes only on Christmas day, drives in from McLean every morning to open the restaurant at 8 a.m. The customers are mostly construction workers and tourists hungry for the $3.25 breakfast special of bacon, ham or sausage, two eggs, toast and hash browns. When the weather turns bad, Cahill said he stays at a nearby hotel so he can open on time.
The lunch crowd is mostly government workers and lawyers who order the most popular year-round dish, roast turkey with dressing and gravy and two vegetables for $4.95.
The early evening crowd usually drinks and bets on the lottery. Many of them are printers, bus drivers, parking lot attendants and hotel maids who order the shot-and-a-half bottles with soda and pay about $2.75, depending on the type of liquor.
Cahill bought Whitlow's after working as a D.C. police officer and then for Marriott.
"This place was available and had been closed for eight months," he said. "I don't think there were any other bidders. Back then, right after the riots, people were afraid to come downtown and there were a lot of boarded-up buildings in the area."
The neon signs are his big expense, he said.
"Last year, I spent more than $2,000 to have the sign that says 'grill' reconditioned. But I think they are important. You can't buy neon like that anymore."
Whitlow's vintage facade of heavy green glass and the neon signs delight Washington's Art Deco Society.
Richard Striner, society president, said that it was fashionable in the 1930s to brighten up old buildings with facings of heavy, industrial-strength carrara glass.
"Most were done in black," he said. "We consider Whitlow's green glass to be extremely rare in the Washington area."
Recently, longtime customers Henry Matthews and Russell Wyatt discussed the demise of most of the bars that once speckled downtown when it was a neighborhood of stores and apartments and cheap hotels. They named a dozen places that have vanished.
"This is a worker's bar," Wyatt said. "We are all here by choice. We don't live here, we just work nearby. And when we walk out that door, we all go in different directions."