It’s Thursday night at Peter’s Carry-Out in Bethesda, and the guys occupying the stools closest to the front door are talking about how they’ll cope the following week, when co-owner and short-order cook par excellence Ned Saah will close the place while on vacation. “I’ll be the one wandering around outside,” one of the loiterers says between pulls of Bud.
The dude is joking, but only, I suspect, to dull the pain of the diner’s imminent summer break.
Peter’s, you see, is not a trendy eatery. No one here talks about farm-to-table cooking. No one demands to see the seasonal cocktail list or wants to know the source of every single ingredient on the menu. Odds are, no one gives a flip where Saah buys his products. (He’ll freely tell you that one of his suppliers is Sysco, the foodservice giant that some view with the kind of contempt usually reserved for members of Congress.)
No, Peter’s is a place for regulars. Those guys by the front door? They’re the unofficial hosts, greeting everyone who enters and bidding farewell to everyone who leaves. In between, they’ll serve as the Greek chorus of Peter’s, commenting on whatever action occurs on the 15-plus stools that form a large candy cane around the weathered old counter. Everyone I bring to Peter’s immediately falls for the place.
You might wonder how that’s possible. How can anyone love a place without a decent craft beer, a crispy square of pork belly from Bev Eggleston or a sweet finishing course prepared with fresh, local peaches?
Allow me to speculate: It’s because Peter’s brand of tribalism is not based on the theater or fashion of dining, nor on diners who share a seasonal philosophy or a belief in certain agricultural practices. It’s based on people. It’s based on neighbors. It’s based on a group of folks who can delight in a couple’s young child — whose child? I’m not exactly sure — being passed around from stool to stool so everyone can coo and make silly faces, just as you would in your own living room.
The truth is, I am ambivalent, perhaps even afraid, to suggest you visit Peter’s. First of all, the physical space cannot accommodate more than 15 or so customers. The narrow room, with its barrel-vaulted ceiling, was once a Toddle House, part of a beloved chain of greasy spoons that fed countless people in postwar America. Each diner in the chain was designed to be portable, according to a 1987 Chicago Tribune story I dug up. (“If business wasn’t good at one corner,” the chain’s president told columnist Bob Greene, “you could move the whole restaurant.”) This is a space that demands respect, like the kind shown by the Diner Hunter, whose detective work led me to understand the history behind Peter’s.
But more than that, too many neophytes will literally destroy what makes Peter’s special — its regulars. The people who bring Ned vegetables from their garden, the people who have sandwiches named after them, the people whose fading photographs are taped all over the walls, the people who will gladly absorb you into their circle if you can put down your smartphone long enough to talk to them. Newbies must sprinkle themselves gingerly into the mix of regulars, perhaps early in the week when Ned and his struggling diner could use the business most.
Peter’s is a family business in the most straightforward sense. Ned and his son, Tyler, are often behind the counter, preparing your meal to order, while simultaneously answering the phone, feeding the CD player (mostly blues and blues-rock) or bantering with customers. Ned’s wife, Irene, has developed some of the Greek plates on the menu, like the creamy, lemon-spiked hummus paired with her black-olive-and-parsley salsa, a combination that proves surprisingly harmonious. Ned, the grizzled giant in the ballcap, has been working behind the counter for 23 years now, after he and Irene bought the business in 1990. His ability to multitask has a gruff, practiced grace about it.
No one goes hungry at Peter’s. This truth is based not just on portion sizes. Sure, I never finished an entire meal here, whether my cheeseburger sub (!) with two generous patties or my chicken souvlaki platter with fries and a small dressed salad hiding underneath these griddled pieces of breast meat and crumbly feta. But sometimes I was assisted in my gluttony by Ned, who would surprise me with a gratis basket of Old Bay-dusted fries while I waited on hot wings or one of his signature cheesesteaks, each stuffed with crisped, paper-thin slices of beef and your choice of add-ons (including bacon, for those desiring an extra layer of fat).
Generosity, I’d surmise, is the guiding philosophy behind Peter’s. This generosity extends from the sandwiches (the homemade chicken-salad sub is packed with the fresh, creamy mixture) to the size of the fluffy griddled pancakes (plate-size, approximately) to the poor gentleman staring into Peter’s from the sidewalk. He appears to be homeless; he also appears to be a regular, like everyone else. Almost immediately, Ned begins preparing two fresh, piping-hot cups of coffee for him, loaded down with ungodly amounts of sugar. Several people around the counter offer to pay for the guy’s coffee. Ned refuses them all.
Then the Greek chorus by the front door — the one that has to wait until Monday to reassemble at Peter’s — offers an opinion about the man looking for a hand-out: “He’s a good guy.”
8017 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda.
Nearest Metro: Bethesda, with a half-mile walk to the diner.
Prices: Sandwiches and entrees, $2.50-$12.50.