Back when Bill and I had a car, we were regulars at the Tastee Diner (7731 Woodmont Ave, Bethesda, MD 20814). Many of our days launched with breakfast hot off the grill, free refills on coffee, and chit-chat with the friendly staff. After selling our car. we didn’t get out to the suburbs as much. Sure, we frequented many competent breakfast venues inside the city limits, but none ever replaced the Tastee experience. Passing years didn’t diminish the memories.
On a recent morning riding the Metro red line on the way to an errand in Montgomery County, Maryland, we decided to take a diner detour and got off the train at the Bethesda station.
Despite the towering construction cranes and traffic, we found the walk from the station to the diner to be an easy few blocks straight up Wisconsin Avenue, with wide and inviting sidewalks.
When we got to the familiar intersection, we enjoyed not having to search around for metered street parking or pull into a pricey parking garage. We didn’t even have to cross the street!
And there, hanging out on the corner, we recognized the silhouette of the Tastee Diner: the cool, irreverent older brother to virtuous little sister Starbucks. What a relief to find that, despite all the hip new buildings and chain stores that now dominate Bethesda, this tough diner still hasn’t cleaned up its act.
Originally an old railroad car – according to the website, the design was known as the “Cadillac” of dining cars – the Tastee opened in 1935. Customers sat at six booths and the counter stools, which still seat patrons today. In the late 1970s, an addition added more space with extra booths to accommodate the hungry crowds that continue to arrive day and night. Along with locals and tourists, there might even be a politician or a celebrity making the difficult decision about what to order.
Although the diner appears timeless, its future once hung in the balance. Back in summer 2002, an electrical fire did extensive damage and closed the place for months. Bill and I remember being among the displaced, worrying that Gene Wilkes, the owner,
might get tired of the remodeling and sell. Well, he hung in there, and all the customers came back as soon as the diner re-opened. Some sparkling new equipment seemed to be the only difference, all of the original attitude remained intact.
The food is simple, featuring affordable American-style comfort fare, prepared according to customers’ requests. Eccentricities revolving around food preferences are no big deal here. Partial to onions in your home fries – or not? Either way, you got it. Fancy a flat omelet? Whatever that is, the answer is yes.
Open 24 hours, 7 days a week, the Tastee Diner was packed when Bill and I arrived mid-morning. All the old energy and warmth engulfed us as soon as we entered the narrow foyer next to the cash register. The staff greeted us like we had only been away on a brief vacation. How wonderful to see again some familiar faces, even though years had passed: David, joking around with his matching purple shirt and oversize pen, taking orders and waiting tables; kind Marisol working behind the counter, tending to customers’ coffee; and opinionated Al simultaneously cooking at the grill, holding court, and putting together the contents of countless plates.
Where can you buy a full breakfast for two for under $20 these days? In the city, sometimes that’s what our coffee alone costs.
Too soon, we finished breakfast and said our goodbyes, promising to return before another decade passed.
Going with the rail theme, back underground in the Metro, the train that pulled up to the platform happened to be one of the new “7000 series” rail cars debuting this year.
Little by little, the 7000s are replacing cars that have been doing service since the 1970s when Metro first became operational. That was the same decade that Mr. Wilkes became the third owner of the diner.
Stepping onboard seemed a fitting way to round out our morning, appreciating both something old and something new. As we sped along the underground tunnel in our ultra-modern shell, we were already missing the quirky, classic charms of the Tastee.
Is there a diner in your past?