Donna Marriott, wife of J.W. Marriott Jr., was misidentified in a caption on yesterday's front page. (Published 12/04/1999)

The customers came because it was a clean, well-lighted place.

Day after day, some for as long as 40 years, they came to this Hot Shoppes in Marlow Heights. They ate the same meals, sat at the same Formica tables, on the same wooden chairs, smelled the same mashed potatoes sunken in the middle with brown gravy, and winked at the same servers who had been working there as long as they had been coming.

It was a place that offered helpings of consistency with the sauteed chicken livers, country-fried steak and bowls of blue Jell-O. A place where the customers and the servers were as consistent as the meatloaf.

But the last of the Hot Shoppes closed its doors at exactly 1 p.m. yesterday, bringing an end to a chain of restaurants that epitomized the '50s and '60s. They held a certain liver-and-onions charm that made them feel a little old-fashioned and taken for granted, like their blue-green signs.

For years, America has been scraping the plate of the good ol' times of the '50s and '60s, dishing up whatever was left over. But the "Sorry, We're Closed" sign was turned over for a final time yesterday at the restaurant off Branch Avenue at the Marlow Heights Shopping Center in Temple Hills.

Marriott, which owns the Hot Shoppes, decided 10 years ago to get out of the restaurant business and concentrate on its worldwide hotel chain. So when a lease expired on one of the restaurants--there were nearly a hundred in the chain's heyday of the '60s, with 31 in the Washington area--Marriott simply shut its doors. The Marlow Heights lease was the last to expire.

"During the '30s, '40s and '50s, there was basically no competition," J.W. Marriott Jr., chief executive of Bethesda-based Marriott International, said yesterday after the closing ceremonies. "Now, everybody is in the food business--fast food, dinner houses, pizza places. The Hot Shoppes became less and less profitable as the younger people moved on to other concepts."

Most of the Hot Shoppes closed in the '80s. A few weeks ago, the second to the last closed in Crystal City. Marriott announced yesterday that the company would preserve a taste of the Hot Shoppes legacy by opening a "commemorative" restaurant at its Key Bridge hotel in Arlington, with a design much like the original. The menu will include such longtime Hot Shoppes favorites as the Mighty Mo sandwich, the Teen Twist, onion rings and hot-fudge ice cream cake.

Yesterday, longtime customers in Marlow Heights mourned. Hot Shoppes had a way of generating loyalty among people who don't like surprises in their food, people who don't like new faces working behind the line, who don't like change.

For 20 years, Jim Fagan, 51, a statistician with the Census Bureau, parked his car in the same spot Monday through Thursday, and at exactly 12:15 he would enter the restaurant for lunch. For 20 years, he ordered the same thing: chicken. Why get something else when you know the chicken is good?

"I like predictability," Fagan said yesterday, finishing his last meal and fretting about where he'd lunch in the future. When the Hot Shoppes servers saw him around the corner, they simply prepared his plate. "Some things in life, you don't want to have to make a decision about."

He always sat at a square table, never a booth. Liked the elbow room, better to finish his meal.

Evelyn Minor always got the grits. "I feel terrible that they are closing," said Minor, a nurse who had been a patron here since 1978. "I had to dress in black. I'm mourning the loss of these grits."

Jeanette Ousley, 91, started coming to the restaurant when it opened 40 years ago. Most times, she ordered the vegetable plate. Maybe there was something about the vegetable plate that kept her young; she still cleans her own house, does her own yard work and her own hair.

Yesterday she was the one sitting prettily in the back booth in the red cashmere hat. Her niece, Barbara Pandolfi, who took off work to share her aunt's last Hot Shoppes meal, started crying. "It's a place for the common man to eat good American food," she said. "If that concept is lost, we have lost a lot."

"I think it's a shame," said Evelyn Pearson, 82, sitting at another table. "It's the only good place we have to eat. My husband--he's been dead 24 years, but he could get what he wanted. I feel like it's my last time to get any home cooking."

William Lindsey, 74, pushed his salmon-colored tray along the stainless-steel rails below the sneeze shield, past the rolled silverware, the hearts-of-iceberg salads, and the Saran Wrap-covered cottage cheese, the balls of red Jell-O, the carrot-raisin salad, the prunes swimming in their own juices. He passed the country-fried Swiss steak in vegetable gravy, the grilled beef livers and onions, the carved-to-order top round, the steamed broccoli and succotash, the squares of corn bread, the coffee and tea and the pats of real butter.

Lindsey had been coming here every day for 30 years--two meals a day, breakfast and dinner. No lunch. He figured he didn't want to overdo it. He paid his last $9.95 for a sirloin steak cooked medium rare, rice, coleslaw, split-pea soup and sweet potato pie. He took his tray to his favorite table, the one right behind the cashier, the one where he sat so he could look out the picture window. He doesn't like to cook and he doesn't like to eat at home.

"Maybe it's a little cheaper to eat in, but then something is left over," Lindsey said, finishing off his steak. "You put it in the refrigerator and tomorrow you don't want it. Nothing beats Marriott."

The first Hot Shoppe opened in 1927 at 3128 14th St. NW. It began when J.W. "Bill" Marriott bought an A&W Root Beer franchise. He sold frosty mugs for 5 cents each during the summer. But it was a seasonal business, so Marriott, who wanted to keep the restaurant open year round, got permission from Roy Allen of A&W to serve hot food in the winter. And he changed the name to Hot Shoppe. (Which became Hot Shoppes when the second restaurant opened a few months later, on Ninth Street.)

He wanted to serve chili con carne, tamales and barbecue. But neither he nor his wife, Alice, knew the first thing about cooking chili or any other Southwestern dish, so she went to the Mexican Embassy and used her fluent Spanish to impress the chef there. And he gave her the recipes. The restaurants were popular, the prices were low. The places were clean. The servers were courteous. Within three years, Bill and Alice had three Hot Shoppes.

Marriott was a stickler for detail. He supervised the creation of his recipes, so that the food would be consistent, and made surprise inspections in his kitchens with a white glove. "Usually the warning call came down from the restaurant's offices upstairs--'Here comes the Big Tamale'--and the staff passed the message along," Alice Marriott wrote in the Hot Shoppes Cookbook.

Hot Shoppes managers were required to attend weekly cooking classes and had pop quizzes where they had to prepare recipes without any notes.

By the 1930s, Marriott changed his restaurants to accommodate the growing popularity of the automobile. He hired hundreds of drive-in waiters, who were soon called "running boys." They ran to parked cars that flashed their lights when customers were ready to order. The running boys would run to take orders, then run to the kitchen to deliver them, then run back with food trays high over their heads.

The Running Boy became the logo for Hot Shoppes, although during World War II, when manpower was short, Hot Shoppes began hiring running girls.

Over the next decades, one Hot Shoppe after another sprouted along busy thoroughfares. Bill and Alice Marriott chose locations by standing at busy intersections and counting cars to determine which direction had the heaviest flow.

As the restaurants multiplied, they added soups, sandwiches and pastries to the menu. Later, Hot Shoppes became one of the first restaurants to serve meals on airplanes. The restaurant on the 14th Street Bridge used to serve passengers and flight crews until they began ordering the food to go, according to the cookbook. Finally, Marriott got the idea of delivering meals to planes at Hoover Field.

"Those running boys, they could run with those trays like the wind," recalled Grace Lashley, who started working for Hot Shoppes in 1951 and has been cooking there ever since--48 years. Yesterday she was sitting at a table. It was close to the end of her shift. A black net covered her hair, curled under at the ends. She was remembering. "Some of them used to move very fast."

It was Lashley's last day to come in, turn on the lights, sanitize the tables and cook breakfast. It had been the only real job she had had since she was 18, cooking for Hot Shoppes. She never made a lot of money, although she joined the Marriott profit-sharing plan and has saved and says she can do all right by herself. "My father told me: 'It's not what you make, it's what you do with what you make.' "

She is sorry to see the last of the Hot Shoppes go dark.

Customers would know when somebody else cooked the grits. "They will say, 'Those are not Mrs. Grace's grits, are they? I want Mrs. Grace's grits.' "

Yesterday, the lines stretched nearly to the door, with people--the faithful and those driving the faithful--coming to get one last taste of grits, one last bite of sweet potato pie, one last roll to sop up the chicken liver gravy and see whether they made any meatloaf for their last suppers.