2101 Wisconsin Ave. NW
Hours: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.
Prices: Sandwiches $1.45 to $4.95, entrees $5.15 to $9.95.
Cards: American Express, Diners Club, Discover, MasterCard, Visa.
Sooner or later, it seems, everything old becomes new again. Miniskirts have found a new audience. Pink and black color schemes are back in vogue, as are Marilyn and Elvis.
Our nostalgia for the not-so-distant past is perhaps most apparent on the restaurant scene, where the likes of meat loaf and mashed potatoes are being rediscovered by a new generation of diners, and celebrated once again by the older.
At John F's, the real surprise is not so much the menu, which is grounded in such familiar basics as fried chicken, pork chops and malteds, but rather the backdrop -- the Holiday Inn, after all, isn't exactly known for setting culinary trends.
Nestled in the rear of the hotel, John F's is a lounge, restaurant and carryout. It is a fresh and spacious environment, the bar separated from the restaurant by half-walls of glass, brick and a flourish of neon. The dining room, designed with practicality and comfort in mind, is split in half by a partition of cozy booths and pots of greenery -- this is a family restaurant in the best sense. Aside from the menu, the '50s theme exists mostly in the pastel-colored tabletops and accouterments of bright-colored squeeze bottles of ketchup and mustard, and big, fat sugar dispensers.
Consider the appetizers and side dishes, lumped together under the heading "only a buck." Potatoes turn up as french fries (you can get them "wet" -- doused with salty brown gravy -- or topped with chili), as well as very good mashed potatoes -- with lumps for authenticity's sake. Rounding out the list are baked beans, coleslaw (finely shredded, fresh and tangy rather than creamy), onion rings, applesauce, sage dressing, and vegetables such as green beans and creamed corn.
Perhaps the best introduction to a meal is the salad bar, which stretches across one end of the room. Except for a bowl of red gelatin and some canned fruit, the salads are fresh and up-to-date offerings of pasta, vegetables, marinated mushrooms, corn relish and the like.
Expect strapping portions at John F's. The intense malted milks are poured from big, metal canisters that keep the contents icy cold, and the deluxe platters are just that. The ketchup-slathered meat loaf platter proved monstrous -- two thick slices of decent, slightly dry meat loaf accompanied by a mountain of spuds and peas. "Aunt Emily's Fabulous Fried Chicken" (a lot of the dishes are given such folksy monikers) is perhaps a bit of an overstatement. Still, I enjoyed the deftly fried, meaty pieces of crisp-coated chicken, which came with potatoes, coleslaw, and a somewhat dry baseball-size powdermilk biscuit. Even the salads are outsize -- a case in point is the barbecue pork salad, which is basically a twist on the ubiquitous chef's salad, moistened with a pitcher of peppery red dressing.
Not all this food is likely to make us yearn for yesteryear. The chicken biscuit pie, an Edsel of an offering, is a bowl of thick, gluey stew with one of those big, warm biscuits plopped in the middle. Likewise, the beef stew, though abundant with flavorful beef and chunks of potato and carrots, was ill-served by a gray, pasty binder. The crab cakes, too, are more breading than crab. If fish is your aim, the southern fried catfish is a far better choice, its flesh moist, its thin coating crisp and savory.
The service is as green as the salad bar, slapdash and forgetful but friendly. At dinner, we asked the waiter to describe the ribs. "They're black," he replied. Ah, Cajun-style, we assumed. No, just black, he responded with a shrug. At lunch, we've seen appetizers arrive just as we were finishing main courses, and at dinner, we've had all the food show up at once. Frequently, there's no one on hand to greet guests. This place needs better organization.
The desserts could use some upgrading, too. The menu describes the apple pie as "close to Mom's," but judging from the flimsy, factory-tasting crust and canned apple slices, Sara Lee or Mrs. Paul must have been the kitchen's maternal inspiration. Even less successful was the rock-hard bread pudding, served in a sundae dish and topped with a syrupy raspberry sauce. Best to stick with an ice cream beverage, or perhaps a big bowl of fresh fruit.
Admittedly, it takes some weeding to get to the good stuff at John F's, where the trip down Memory Lane is smoothed more by comfort and low prices than by unforgettable food.
Tom Sietsema is on the staff of The Washington Post Food section.