As cafes go, it wasn’t the hippest place. The coffee wasn’t cold-pressed. It didn’t serve a dozen types of tea. There wasn’t kombucha. It didn’t sit on Central Park or the Champs-Élysées. Probably no one wrote poetry about the McDonald’s at 3924 Old Lee Hwy. in Fairfax City.
But there was a type of poetry there all the same, a sense of community, and when McDonald’s #4862 closed last month after more than 30 years, it saddened the regulars who valued it as a “third place.”
That’s what sociologists call a place that isn’t home or the office. It’s a place where we go to relax or be stimulated, a place where we can find fellowship — and sometimes an Egg McMuffin.
At least three mornings a week for the past 21 years, you could find Joe Beck at the McDonald’s, sipping coffee with a group of retired men.
“It was pretty much all local guys,” said Joe, 82. Joe heard about the informal breakfast group after he retired from the Department of Agriculture, where he’d been an agricultural marketing specialist. Back then, there might be a dozen men sitting together; more recently, it was four or five. They’d read the paper, sip coffee, discuss issues big and small.
“We had two or three members from World War II,” Joe said. “One was a Marine. Another was a fighter pilot. We had representatives from the school system, Department of Defense employees, federal government employees like myself. We were all drawn together, with different backgrounds, which was good. We could talk about the whole universe with the group there.”
Eventually, the restaurant’s managers put up a sign in the corner where the group met. It read “The Chat Room.”
“It was our room from probably 6:30 till 9 o’clock,” Joe said. “I just feel bad now that the place is gone.”
If you’ve heard of that McDonald’s, in the corner of the Courthouse Plaza shopping center parking lot in downtown Fairfax, it’s probably because of a sad thing that happened there. In August, a motorist accidentally drove his car through a wall, killing 78-year-old Harold Skeins and severely injuring Joe, who was sitting next to his friend.
But that’s not the reason the restaurant closed, said Jim Van Valkenburg of Van Management, the company that operates more than a dozen McDonald’s locations in Northern Virginia. The lease was up, he said.
The whole shopping center is slated for redevelopment and in a few years will be reborn, probably with a mix of retail and residential, said Andrew McIntyre of Combined Properties, owner of the center.
Andrew hopes the renovated Courthouse Plaza will include a casual restaurant like the McDonald’s. He gets the value of a clean, well-lighted place.
“I understand that,” he said. “When I lived in Atlanta, it was the local Waffle House.”
Andrew can still recall one memorable breakfast with some of his co-workers at his local Waffle House. He ordered the pecan waffles, or as he said it, hoping to fit in at the Southern mainstay: the PEE-can waffles.
The gruff waitress fixed Andrew with the sort of basilisk stare that only a Waffle House server can deliver and said, “Son, a PEE-can is something you take a whiz in. Would you like the puh-CAN waffles?”
A sheepish Andrew said yes, please.
“I miss the ‘Awful Waffle,’ ” Andrew said wistfully.
Jim Gillespie wasn’t a member of the McDonald’s #4862 Chat Room. But he’d stop at the restaurant from time to time on his way to or from his house nearby.
“My best memory was of a Christmas evening in the mid-2000s, when I went there in search of comfort food for my overstimulated kids,” he said.
The McDonald’s was lit up and crowded inside. But Jim found that it was closed to customers. The employees and their families were enjoying a Christmas party.
“I was thinking to myself, a lot of these folks probably live in small apartments where it’s hard to get big groups of people together,” Jim said. “The ability to have this big restaurant space to have a real nice holiday party, you don’t think of a big fast-food corporation allowing that kind of thing.”
Jim said he was never so glad to find a restaurant closed. “Those employees really deserved that,” he said. “They worked hard all year long.”
Joe’s group meets at a different McDonald’s now, on Pickett Road near Main Street, though his health problems keep him from attending.
Like the now-shuttered Old Lee Highway outpost, it’s non-glamorous, non-romantic, non-trendy. Jim said: “Those are the kind of restaurants you usually don’t think twice about. But it was an institution and provided a valuable service to the community.”
At the best of these places, you go in for food, but you might leave nourished in a whole different way.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.