This story has been updated.
The tiny downtown D.C. lunch counter C.F. Folks was proof that a decent lunch didn’t have to be an expense-account steak or a fast-casual, build-your-own-bowl endeavor. But the 37-year-old restaurant abruptly closed on Friday after a dispute with its landlord.
Owner Art Carlson announced the closing by posting a long letter on C.F. Folks’ website about the restaurant’s difficulties. He announced that he had retained legal counsel and vowed to reopen in a different location. Carlson wrote that he was disappointed that the building’s owners, Marcus Partners, were limiting his access to handicapped bathrooms for his patrons. The restaurant’s bathrooms are in the basement, accessed via “a stairwell which is too narrow to accommodate safe passage,” while disabled guests were given elevator access to a restroom on an upper floor of the office building during regular business hours.
Carlson wished to extend his hours to dinner, according to his lawyer, Stanley Woodward Jr. of Akin Gump, but “the policy proposed by Marcus Partners is precluding him from reasonably doing that.”
Carlson said he felt constrained by limitations he said the building’s owners were imposing on the handicapped restroom. After business hours, management required him to have guests who wished to use a restroom escorted through the building, to restrooms on different floors than the restaurant. “The landlord requires us to first identify or have our patrons self-identify themselves as being disabled or not,” he wrote. “We will never agree ever to an identifying process, be it voluntary or forced,” Carlson wrote. “Nor will we ever agree to the humiliation of having escorts physically overseeing the intimacies of our clients [sic] restroom usage . . . In the end, our many efforts to negotiate with our two landlords, past and present have been lengthy, costly, exhausting and in the end, futile.”
In a statement to The Washington Post, Marcus Partners disputed Carlson’s characterization of the situation.
“Mr. Carlson expressed his desire to operate his lunch counter outside of regular building hours, a petition he had made unsuccessfully to the building’s prior two owners,” said the company’s statement. “We evaluated and proposed several solutions to Mr. Carlson, none of which included a ‘uniformed escort’ for any patron. Despite his claims, Marcus Partners would never take an action that denigrates or singles out an individual with a disability.” The statement said Marcus Partners’ “earnest desire is that CF Folks’ renown [sic] lunch time service will once again soon be available to its loyal patrons and that it will operate from our property for years to come.”
Carlson declined to comment beyond his letter. Carlson’s other business across the street, the Well Dressed Burrito, will remain open.
C.F. Folks, a tiny diner south of Dupont Circle, opened in 1981, the name a combination of Carlson’s and business partner Peggy Fredericksen’s initials. It was open only for lunch — from precisely 11:30 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. — and had just about a dozen seats in a narrow space with eclectic decor, such as shelves of old cookbooks and a Formica counter.
The restaurant had a seemingly ordinary menu of deli sandwiches, but it was the daily specials, far more sophisticated than their setting, that kept regulars coming back. They might include a chicken korma with basmati rice and chutney, or a mahi-mahi with an herbed cream sauce, or a meatloaf made of veal and pork served on toasted sourdough with mashed potato mushroom sauce and crispy onions. Most dishes cost about $13.
“You walk in a diner like that, and you really don’t expect anything,” former chef George Vetsch told The Post, “and then you get this food — you get this substantial, good food — and that’s what I think made it special. It’s been around forever.”
In 1986, Post critic Phyllis Richman named the restaurant to her list of the 50 best in the city. “You not only have to fight the crowd, but you also have to serve yourself, and the table tops and counter are unadorned except for flimsy paper napkins,” she wrote. “Yet, if you have to scarf down your wonderful whiskey-drenched bread pudding and the very good coffee because of the glares from the waiting throng, you can at least enjoy the fact that it is such good bread pudding, and that such high-quality coffee is still 50 cents.”
Other than the price of the coffee, little changed over the years. In his 2009 review, Post critic Tom Sietsema wrote, “It would be easy to applaud C.F. Folks just for being there, but Carlson and now Vetsch don’t play the nostalgia card.”
In 2013, the James Beard Foundation honored the restaurant with an America’s Classics Award, given to eateries “with timeless appeal, each beloved in its region for quality food that reflects the character of its community.” Other America’s Classics include such historic restaurants as the Grand Central Oyster Bar and Peter Luger Steak House in New York, the Tadich Grill in San Francisco, and Washington’s own Ben’s Chili Bowl.
The Beard Foundation wrote in its announcement that C.F. Folks was a “600-square-foot temple of honest cooking and good will . . . Carlson, the ever-present host, is one of the last of a dying breed: a hands-on owner who schmoozes and teases his customers, often at the same time.”
Carlson responded to the honor with trademark self-deprecation.
“The beauty of being an American classic is that you don’t have to produce very good food,” Carlson told The Post in 2013.
Well, the food at C.F. Folks was good — it punched way above its weight. But that’s not the only thing that will be lost if the restaurant remains closed. It could spell the end of regulars’ relationship with Carlson, now in his mid-70s, who suffered a stroke in 2006 and contemplated retirement afterward. But he kept going — and kept up his friendly-gruff ribbing of his guests, including restaurant critics.
“Half the thrill of going to lunch at C.F. Folks is the chance that the owner is going to mess with you,” wrote Sietsema.
“He is — what’s the word? — a character, there’s no doubt about it,” Vetsch said.
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