The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Five restaurants that time (almost) forgot

In 2007, I panicked. It had just been announced that Tom Sarris’ Orleans House was closing, and I had never been there. A native Washingtonian, I had been meaning to check out the landmark Rosslyn eatery, which opened in 1964, almost my whole life. But I had never gotten around to it, partly because my wife had warned me not to. She had eaten there when she first moved to Washington and dismissed it as “kind of gross.”

Okay, so the restaurant was known for little more than slabs of prime rib, served up rare with a side salad from a giant, riverboat-shaped salad bar. And its decor combined Tiffany-style lampshades with medieval armor. But that’s what made it great. So in the few weeks before the Orleans House shut down forever to make way for a soulless high-rise, I ate there — not once, but twice. I loved it, and wasn’t even put off by the bioluminescent green goddess dressing.

I admit: I’m a sucker for old restaurants. But these days, it seems, they’re increasingly invisible. It’s the new places that grab the attention of Washington’s rising foodie culture. Along once-blighted stretches of 14th Street NW, 11th Street NW and H Street NE, there’s a dining boom. In many of the hotter venues, it’s not unusual to wait an hour or more for a table.

And yet, off to the side of this culinary tsunami, slinging everything from hash to haute cuisine with little fanfare — and often even less marketing — are the Restaurants That Time Forgot. Or almost forgot.

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Trio Restaurant: Comfort food and beyond
Established: 1940
Vibe: The fictional Monk's Cafe from "Seinfeld."
Signature dish: Roast turkey with dressing, cranberry sauce and gravy.
Did you know? Waiter Darryl Burrell, who has been taking orders at Trio’s since 1982, writes backwards, a trick he perfected while trying to ward off boredom in sociology class.

Every day is Thanksgiving at Trio Restaurant, a funky Dupont Circle diner known as much for its quiet booths as for its lively outdoor patio. That’s according to longtime manager Mourad Benjelloun, who bought the 63-year-old business when the previous owner, George Mallios, retired last winter. Turkey — carved daily from a whole roasted bird — is a menu staple, along with such specials as sauteed chicken livers with onions and bacon.

Known for little more than downscale comfort food for much of its existence, Trio’s, as regulars call it, didn’t start branching out, culinarily, until the mid-1990s, when nearby neighborhoods began to gentrify. That’s when Mallios, who had worked his way through college in the family-owned restaurant, decided to hire Benjelloun, along with a real chef.

Benjelloun went to work on the menu, keeping the old-time favorites but adding items such as fish. Diners who remember the old Trio’s might be shocked to find grilled mahi mahi in saffron beurre blanc across the menu from corned beef and cabbage, both at old-time prices. One thing Benjelloun doesn’t dare change: the idiosyncratic way mixed drinks are served. Order a gin and tonic, for instance, and you get a glass filled to the sloshing brim with several ounces of booze next to a 10-ounce bottle of tonic.

Benjelloun plans to make more tweaks to the menu, but he is bracing himself for complaints from customers about the loss of a favorite dish. He promises that if that happens, he’ll simply bring back the item as a special the next week. “I don’t call myself the owner of Trio’s,” says Benjelloun, who prefers the term “operator.” “The real owner is the customer.”

Vienna Inn: The heart of a small town
Established: 1960.
Vibe: Frat house basement/day-care center.
Signature dish: Chili dog or chili mac.
Did you know? The Inn goes through 11,000 hot dogs a month and cooks 75 pounds of chili Sunday through Thursday. On Friday and Saturday, it’s more like 100 pounds.

On a recent Thursday evening, the parking lot is full behind the Vienna Inn, the venerable, 53-year-old establishment that sits in downtown Vienna next to a shop advertising, appropriately enough, “antiques and collectibles.” As if frozen in amber, the tiny yet boisterous dive seems never to have had a makeover, its torn vinyl banquettes and chipped laminate tables showing its age.

But no one among the college kids, families, business people and blue-collar workers drinking and eating here — many out of red plastic baskets lined with wax paper — seems to mind.

Most of the customers come for the chili dogs or the chili mac, dishes topped with the Inn’s famous beanless chili. The recipe was passed down from the original owners to Marty Volk, who bought the place in 2000 and added a gallery of children’s place-mat drawings to the sports-themed decor. The menu, which doesn’t list prices — they’re updated on a whiteboard — also includes pretty decent fried chicken, along with other eclectic offerings. Nothing costs more than a few bucks.

Known locally as the beating heart of Vienna, the Inn is a popular stop for a beer and a brisket sandwich on the way to a show at Wolf Trap, or for sustenance during the town’s annual Halloween parade, which passes nearby. According to Vienna native Joan Marie Giampa, an artist who owns the Red Caboose Gallery in town, it’s less a restaurant than a kind of unofficial community center. “It’s a place where people meet and tell secrets and stories,” she says. “The mayor goes there. The criminals go there.”

Old Europe: Feasting on tradition, minus the plane ticket.
Established: 1948
Vibe: Crazy Uncle Ludwig's House.
Signature dish: Grillteller, a meat sampler that includes five varieties of sausage.
Did you know?  If you’re used to Belgian-style white beer, the Berlin-style weissbier here is very different. To cut the sour taste, it’s typically served with flavored syrup — raspberry or Woodruff — which turns the beverage a lovely shade of pale green. It’s also served with a straw.

When Old Europe proprietor Alex Herold renovated the Glover Park restaurant last summer after it was damaged in the 2011 earthquake, he was careful to put things back where he had found them. That included the lovingly restored model ships that had been hanging from the ceiling since before Herold’s family took over the German eatery from its original owners in 1972. Nevertheless, he did rearrange a few paintings, grouping landscapes on one wall and moving a bunch of funny-looking portraits of old men with pipes into a new area he jokingly calls the “smoking section.”

Herold says he didn’t want to mess with Old Europe’s longstanding atmosphere of gemutlichkeit, a German expression that roughly translates as “friendliness.” What’s lost in translation is a sense of the restaurant’s offbeat charm, embodied by dirndl-clad waitresses, polka music on Wednesdays and decor featuring a cuckoo clock and giant beer steins.

There are many other German words on the menu, including schweinshaxe (ham hocks), sauerbraten (braised beef), hahnchenbrust (chicken breast) and, of course, wurst (sausage). For those who aren't quite so meat-happy, a vegetarian platter is offered. Every spring, the restaurant celebrates asparagus season by offering a full pound of that vegetable, white or green, as a side dish for one very hungry person or as a plate for sharing.

Such traditions are what appeals to those who know Old Europe, as well as those just discovering it. Herold recalls when a large group came in recently to celebrate a birthday. As it turns out, some of the guests had lived in the nearby Burleith neighborhood for 30 years but never once thought to step inside the restaurant. For them, the Old Europe was a newfound land.

Calvert House Inn: Simplicity Never Goes Out of Style
Established: 1963
Vibe: A modest country manor house — viewed through Instagram’s “1977” photo filter.
Signature dish: Crab cakes with calcuminto.
Did you know? When Fereydoun Salimi took over the restaurant in 1980, the first thing he got rid of was the big bird out front. The poultry-shaped sign was a remnant of an earlier specialty: Southern-fried chicken.

By outward appearances, the Calvert House Inn hasn’t changed much since I took my mom there for Mother’s Day more than 25 years ago. Seafood, the house specialty, still tastes pretty good, as does a cucumber and tomato salad, made with a recipe from the Iranian mother of owner Fereydoun “Freddy” Salimi. (It’s called calcuminto, short for “Calvert cucumber, mint and tomato.”)

That side dish is less exotic than it once was, a result of the area’s growing culinary sophistication. But sometimes you don’t want sophistication. You want things simple and straightforward. Old-fashioned even. On Friday nights, a pianist plays tunes from the American Songbook. Sunday brunch features a three-piece jazz combo.
Salimi says it takes 80 to 90 hours a week, seven days a week, to run the restaurant with his wife, Susan — not because they’re trying to maintain the status quo, but to exceed it. Just last month, the restaurant received a citation from Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, honoring its 50 years as “one of the finest dining establishments” in Prince George’s County and the state. Competition these days is fierce, not just from the McDonalds across the street, but also from such nearby restaurants as Busboys and Poets. New dining options are opening everywhere, many backed by million-dollar investors.

The Salimis have made some small adjustments, offering free-range, antibiotic-free beef and chicken, cutting back on butter and eliminating such musty relics of the fine-dining past as escargot. That’s inevitable as tastes change, along with appetites, expectations and options. But the fundamentals, Salimi says, will never change. “I don’t think people forgot how good filet mignon tastes.”

Mama Ayesha's: Made over on the inside
Established: 1960.
Vibe: Old Hollywood version of a casbah.
Signature dish: Lamb. Try the shish kabob or the shank, known as mouzat.
Did you know? Former White House reporter Helen Thomas, who died last week, was a Mama Ayesha regular. She had her own booth, specially designed to accommodate her diminutive stature.

From the outside, Mama Ayesha’s is a nondescript bunker, albeit one adorned by a mural featuring the restaurant’s late founder and namesake, Jerusalem-born “Mama” Ayesha Abraham, flanked by presidents Eisenhower through Obama. That’s how many administrations the Middle Eastern eatery has outlasted.

Step inside the renovated interior, however, and you enter a kind of oasis. Unlike many older restaurants, which haven’t changed much over the years, Mama Ayesha’s has been transformed. Five years ago, Washington restaurant designer John Hutson added tones of terra cotta and warm yellow and divided the room into what he calls a “dating side” on the right, with tables for two, and a “family side” on the left, with generously proportioned booths. The lighting is dim, twinkling through cut-out brass globes on one side and, on the other, glowing from Christmas bulbs inside candles overhead.

“One thing I know how to do is light,” says Hutson, who used to work in television production.

Nothing quite so dramatic has transformed the menu, whose offerings still center around Mama’s fragrant grilled or baked lamb — the aroma from which must drive the canines crazy at the nearby Walter Pierce Park dog run.

Is the secret to the restaurant’s longevity its respect for the old family recipes or its rebirth as a romantic getaway? Probably a bit of both, says Mohammed Abu-El-Hawa, a grandnephew of the restaurant’s late founder who runs the business with his brother, father and uncle. Plus, Abu-El-Hawa jokes, “it helps to own the building.”