In some ways, Osman & Joe’s Steak N’ Egg Kitchen has always been about choice real estate. At the 24-hour diner on Wisconsin Avenue and Chesapeake Street NW, if you don’t find one of the dozen or so seats at the counter, you’re out of luck. You either have to order and sit outside, or order to go. Or you can just wait somewhat awkwardly in the remaining diner space, watching people eat.
There are people who will tell you that the place more casually known as “Steak and Egg” is just as much of a city food landmark as Ben’s Chili Bowl. But for anyone who grew up or went to school in, around or anywhere near the joint, it wasn’t just iconic — it was a rite of passage. Getting drunk and eating at Steak N’ Egg is just something you did, period.
Last week, UrbanTurf reported on plans to redevelop the restaurant’s site in Tenleytown. The architectural renderings were a follow up to initial news last year that redevelopment was coming to the block. At the time, the American University Internet mafia freaked out, understandably. Then after more information was released, stating that the diner was part of the new development’s plans, people seem satisfied.
But the new plans released last week killed that relief for me.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. The idea is to place a mixed-use development with retail on the ground floor and residential on-top. It’s a plan that has been in place for some time, according to Frank Economides, whose development group has owned the building for nearly a decade.
“We always talked about expanding,” he said Wednesday. Referring to business owners Osman Barrie and Joe Vamboi he added: “Together, with Osman and I and Joe, we’ve always had this discussion about if the time was right, then we would expand.”
Fair enough. But there was a more heartbreaking component in this for me. I’ve known Frank nearly all my life. His son is a year younger than I am and went to the same school for years. We played high school hoops together. He went to American. If I searched my memory far back enough, I’m sure I could find a time when his son and I were probably at that place together. You never knew who you’d see there grabbing grub. But if you saw them, you were never surprised.
I couldn’t blame foreign investors or shake my fist at a huge national conglomerate coming in and tearing down my favorite greasy spoon. It was my friend’s dad. In the constant realignment of the visual vocabulary of the city, the “boogeyman” factor, even if naively, was always pretty high. I always wanted to believe that some outsider was tearing down the landmarks of my formative years. No longer.
Economides was honest about it. “You’re not going to see buildings like that hang around long anymore,” he said. And if you look around Tenleytown, it’s easy to see that he couldn’t be more correct. Up the street, the old Babe’s Billiard’s Cafe site at Wisconsin and Brandywine Street is another construction site. On the walls of the old building, a photo-collage by Gail S. Rebhan is displayed, showing old photos of the neighborhood. Everyone knows that fortunately, the old walk from Babe’s to Osman’s is downhill.
Across the street, The Dancing Crab is closed for renovations. A shiny new building next door to it claims to be opening soon with some quick-fire restaurant. When it comes to development in white neighborhoods, they don’t call it gentrification.
I could tell stories for days about hanging out with Osman watching the news on that rickety television on top of the freezer for hours, because we just didn’t have anything else to do after hanging out on the north side of Fort Reno Park, more casually known as “Deal Hill” after Alice Deal Middle School.
But the best story I could ever repeat comes from a guy named Jordan Bishop.
Bishop was born in D.C., but he grew up in Bethesda and went to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. One night he decided to take matters into his own hands. He cooked himself a burger.
Bishop, 31, who now lives in Dupont Circle, described the scenario with a laugh. “One night post college, everyone was all bleary-eyed and drunk. We figured it was a great place to go. They always had really funny staff,” he said, espousing the best part of the experience. “In college at Tulane … I spent one semester working as a short-order cook. I guess I probably told the guy that. It was crowded and taking a long time for food to come out. So I was like, ‘Hey, can I cook my own burger?’ He was just frustrated with everything and said, ‘Come on back.’ So I get back there, I start flipping burgers. Made one for me and my friend.”
Incredible. Bishop goes Smoky Mountain burger every time.
The new plans are ambitious, and as far as real estate development goes, they make sense. The place is almost always jam-packed during busy hours, and to the naked eye, the restaurant can look a little dingy.
“It’ll be a new place, nice clean. It’s going to be Steak N’ Egg, with a counter and more seating area. More booths, tables and things like that. Because they get so busy they lose business. And that’s the problem with them. They need additional square footage, they need additional real estate for their business,” Economides said. “They turn people away, and that’s a big problem, especially in the winter season.”
But a newer, bigger place won’t be the same. With people living upstairs, the whole 24-hour deal is far more likely to cause problems. The party vibe of that lawn and patio on late nights will be gone. Sure the food will be there, but the ambiance will not. And that’s the real draw.
There’s no specific timetable on when demolition could begin or how long the diner will be closed during that process. But the writing is on the wall. Nothing is sacred.
Thursday, it was business as usual. The “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” print still hangs on the wall. The payphone that was once there is long-gone, but the shelf where it sat is still there. Oddly enough, there’s still a phone book in it. The door was wide open, and the AC was on full blast.
“The reality is they need to expand,” Economides concluded.
As I left after eating, getting borderline emotional about the experience, a woman and her granddaughter were dining. The girl had her teddy bear on the stool next to her. It sat right there at the counter like everyone else.
Thankfully, on this day, inside the diner at least, real estate wasn’t particularly valuable.