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George Pelecanos orders the creamed chipped beef.
It arrives steaming on two slices of white bread, toasted, with little pills of oil dotting the pool of cream.
“You’ll probably want to add some salt,” he deadpans in a slow baritone. A beat passes. He half-grins. “Just kidding.”
Pelecanos, poet laureate of blue-collar D.C., sits in a booth at the Tastee Diner, a greasy spoon eatery on Cameron Street in Silver Spring, not far from where he grew up. Priding itself as “one of the last original, authentic American diners,” the Tastee is at least true to the tradition, with a long bar, spacious booths upholstered in vinyl, and an ultra-caloric menu. It’s a favorite of Spero Lucas, the protagonist of Pelecanos’ two most recent novels, The Cut and The Double.
The chipped beef isn’t high cuisine. But it’s good. The cream is smooth, and yes, salty; it lands in your gut like an affirmation, and the satisfaction is unholy. For a second, you forget Sweetgreen even exists.
Here, we might observe how the writer eats, shedding light on his prose through his fork-and-knife behavior. But Pelecanos tucks into his breakfast like a human being, which is exactly how he writes—with everyday art, uncommon observation, and superlative empathy. Reading his 19 novels, though, all of which are set in and around the District, you get a sense that Pelecanos should have done more food writing. He’s Anthony Bourdain without the smugness, with a fixation on soul food.
There’s a stubborn ethos to chow like this, a lack of pretense that increasingly feels like a statement in D.C., where restaurateurs spend $6 million trying to capture the je ne sais quoi in French brasseries. Pelecanos doesn’t do pretentious—not in prose, not in food.
His characters eat a lot. What and where they eat says something about who they are, and what they need: the alcoholic investigator trying to hide from the world; the broken-hearted father looking for family and fellowship; the young Iraq vet reclaiming the youth he lost in the desert. Taken as a whole, Pelecanos’ body of work provides an alternative culinary map of the District, one that mirrors the mostly vanishing D.C. dining world that Pelecanos remembers from the pre-boom decades, but also accounts for the District’s onward (if not always directly forward) march. It’s not Le Diplomate, but if you’re a Pelecanos character, you’re not looking for the pâté de campagne; you’re looking for satisfaction.
“If these places go away, a city loses its character,” he says. “When all you get is Chipotle, you might as well be living in Dallas.”
Pelecanos was born in the District in 1957, the second-generation American son of Pete and Ruby. His family moved to Silver Spring shortly after his birth, and Pelecanos lives there today with his wife and three children. In addition to defining D.C.’s literary noir canon, he wrote for and helped produce HBO’s superlative crime epic The Wire, personally penning the balcony scene between Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale (“Just dream with me,” one crime lord says to another with all of Baltimore before them). Teaming up with David Simon of The Wire, Pelecanos also co-wrote and produced Treme, a New Orleans drama, and has a Times Square–set show called The Deuce in pilot production.
When he’s working on a book, he puts in the time as if it were any other trade, seven days a week, working a long morning until it’s time for a late lunch. At night, he cleans up the morning’s work. He wrote 19 books like this, the latest of which, The Martini Shot, arrived last week. It’s his first collection of short stories, and you’ll find it in the crime/thriller section of your local bookseller.
That genre label isn’t misplaced—Pelecanos’ early touchstones were masters of the form like John D. MacDonald and Elmore Leonard; it just doesn’t fully encompass his work. He’s a social realist at heart, more Émile Zola than Lee Child, and for Pelecanos, the streets of his native city are more than canvases for spilled blood. They’re a character.
Take 2004’s Hard Revolution, which Pelecanos says is the novel he always wanted to write. Set in D.C. during the riots in 1968, it follows Derek Strange, a young black beat cop. Hard Revolution brings the District to life, making it jump off the page with vitality even as it’s burning itself down.
The book takes place during the summer Pelecanos started working at his father Pete’s lunch counter, The Jefferson Coffee Shop, at 19th Street and Jefferson Place NW. “My mother and father said, ‘You’re 11, it’s time to go to work,’” Pelecanos says. “My job was to deliver food on foot to offices.” As Pelecanos developed his Garmin-like knowledge of D.C.’s streets and alleys, he picked up the fumes of revolution, too. “This was right after the riots,” he says, “a turbulent and ultimately cleansing event in the city’s history. Plus, the counterculture had descended upon Dupont Circle, and May Day was on the horizon. Plus, pretty girls, everywhere. So there was plenty of things for a boy like me to chew on, even if I didn’t fully understand what I was experiencing.” WOL and WOOK played on the Jefferson’s house radio, giving the 11-year-old a “love of deep soul.”
For his grandfathers, food had been a means of rooting immigrant families in America. George Pelecanos, the author’s paternal grandfather and namesake, owned a lunch counter at 5th and Florida. His mother’s step-father, Pete Frank, owned the Sun Dial on 14th Street NW near Park Road, and later ran Frank’s Carry Out at 14th and R, where he learned to cook soul food. At nights, locals would gather to watch boxing matches on TV. Readers get a version of Frank’s Carry Out in The Big Blowdown, a postwar epic of immigrants and crime. In the book, it’s Big Nick’s, and here it is on fight night: “Everyone was laughing and carrying on, trying to speak louder than the guy next to him, all of them having a fine time. Nick’s might have been a lunch counter during the day, but it was no different than any other beer garden at night.”
Nick Kendros, his mother’s biological father, owned the Woodward Grille at H and 15th streets NW; today, it’s Woodward Table, an upscale American eatery owned by Jeff Buben (of Vidalia and Bistro Bis fame), where the server gushes over Pelecanos: “He’s, like, my favorite author. I grew up in Takoma Park.”
But it’s the Jefferson Coffee Shop that shows up most often in Pelecanos’ work. There, he gleaned the motifs that glue together his fictional kitchens: the bar with vinyl seating; the open kitchen; the friendly arguments between owner and chef. The lunch counter becomes a microcosm of the community and vitality that energizes Pelecanos’ blue-collar D.C., and a metaphor for the forces that divide it. Pay attention to who sits on which side of the counter. At the Jefferson, it was obvious enough to 11-year-old Pelecanos: “It wasn’t lost on me that, on one side of the counter, blacks and Greeks were serving white professionals who were seated on the other side.”
Today, that counter is owned by Art Carlson, and the place is called CF Folks. “Art improved the menu and the food, but it still looks pretty much the same,” Pelecanos says. “I still go down there occasionally, have lunch, talk to Art and ‘visit’ with my dad.”
CF Folks does lunch. That’s it. And that’s all it needs, as anyone who’s tried to elbow their way through the door at noon can attest. Though it has the dimensions of a shipping container, Folks hums with a pleasant chaos, the close quarters feeling cozy, not claustrophobic. It’s a professional crowd, the counter lined with guys in collared shirts and women in knee-length skirts and stockings. On a brisk day, Carlson says, they’ll do 150 lunches.
John Twomey, the counter guy, sweeps back and forth, humming, forever asking: “Did you get your food?” or “Did you order yet?” Sweat beads on his forehead, but he doesn’t look like he’s working.
“Umm, Diet Coke?” Twomey says, panning the counter with a soft drink in his hand, having forgotten who ordered it. “Umm…no idea.” He dumps it into a sink labeled HANDWASHING ONLY. “We don’t really write down orders here,” he says. From the counter, you can see into the kitchen with its postage stamp-sized prep station, towers of pots and pans, every square inch maximized over more than three decades.
Though its operations look like a mosaic of chaos glued together by luck, the restaurant was founded in 1981 with a deliberate mission: Lunches only. No weekends, no holidays.
“Everybody here has a family life,” Carlson says. “And that’s hard to do, because our rent costs as much as anybody else’s.” In order to pull it off, forget about growth. Some would call this failure—not Carlson. “If you don’t grow, maybe you’re just less selfish.”
He inherited the ethos, he says, from Pete Pelecanos, a man Carlson describes with one word: “Gracious.” Shortly after getting CF Folks off the ground, Carlson invited the former owner for a bite on the house. Pete and Ruby sat in a deuce by the counter, eating, studying. After he cleared his plate, he gave Carlson a high pass and offered suggestions.
“Pete could pick up the mood, the sway, the music,” Carlson says. After that lunch, Carlson regularly invited Pete Pelecanos back to take the temperature. The elder restaurateur would get a free lunch, and Carlson would get some indispensable wisdom.
As for the food, Carlson lays it out: “We’re a gas station. People come here because they need fuel. Maybe they want regular, premium, or high test. We’re a fulfillment center for people working in the immediate two-block area.”
An hour past noon on a Thursday, and CF Folks is almost tapped out. Johnny slaps a Xeroxed specials menu on the bar and starts crossing things off. The rockfish livornese is gone; so are the chicken piccata and the French dip sandwich. The meatloaf stands out for its simplicity. In D.C., a city increasingly enamored with the haute-est of haute cuisine, it takes moxie to serve meatloaf without loading it with wild boar or Montana elk, or smothering the whole thing in a red wine reduction. No: They serve it falling off a hill of garlic mashers, with brown gravy. Contents: cow; pig.
The plates head to the washer pre-cleaned. The lunchtime clamor lowers a few decibels, and Carlson eyes the register tape; not bad for a Thursday. It’s never easy, he says: “We dance to an ever-changing market.” It takes some savvy, a lot of luck, and determined fidelity to the vision set forth by Pete Pelecanos.
As for Carlson, he’s obviously a fan of Pelecanos the younger. His favorite Pelecanos novel is Shoedog; whenever he swings by Politics & Prose, he picks up the latest book. It’s reflex. “It’s my way of saying, ‘Go George.’”
Of D.C.’s old Greek diners, Pelecanos says, few remain (Carlson’s a Swede, a second-gen American like Pelecanos, but he wears the tradition with ease). The sons of Greek restaurateurs went to college, Pelecanos says, according to expectation, and grew out of the food business. Pelecanos was 19 when his father’s health began to collapse, leading him to drop out of the University of Maryland and man the counter at Jefferson Coffee Shop. “I distinctly remember this lawyer in the building who said to me one day, ‘Why would you go back to school? You should just take the place over. You people are so good at this business,’” Pelecanos says. “At the time I was a little offended, as I felt like he was telling me I should stay in my place. But when I thought about it, I realized that, well-intentioned or not, the guy was right. We are good at this. Sometimes it’s in your blood.”
In a George Pelecanos novel, restaurant scenes are like jazz solos, swinging along with kitchen talk and boom box music. It’s the kind of sharply-observed banter that can only come from experience: In 1989, Pelecanos worked in the kitchen at My Brother’s Place at 2nd and C streets NW, washing dishes and writing his first novel, A Firing Offense, on spiral-bound notebooks after he hung up the apron.
My Brother’s Place—closed for business now as it becomes British-American pub The Alibi—shows up as The Spot in Nick’s Trip, the fierce and dark sequel to A Firing Offense. Here’s how Pelecanos pays it tribute: “The common wisdom holds that there are no neighborhood joints left in D.C., places where a man can get lost and smoke cigarettes down to the filter and drink beer backed with whiskey. The truth is you have to know where to find them. Where you can find them is down by the river, near the barracks, and east of the Hill.”
Nick Stefanos, Pelecanos’ first and most autobiographical character, washes up at The Spot as day-drinker, recently unemployed after staging a shootout at his old job at the end of A Firing Offense. “I stepped down into the main bar, which was to the left and ran the length of the room,” he narrates. “There were two hanging conical lamps, which dimly illuminated columnar blocks of smoke. A blue neon Schlitz sign burned over the center of the bar. Billie Holiday was singing in mono through the speakers hung on either side of the room.”
Stefanos is looking for work, but half-heartedly, and The Spot gives pretext to a hidden urge. He walks in and comments on the neon blue Schlitz sign.
“We put up whatever the liquor distributors give us,” she said, then shrugged and gave me a weak smile. “Fuck it. You know?”
Yeah, I knew. It was my kind of place and I was due. I returned there every day for the next two weeks and drank with intent.
With little else to do and nowhere he’d rather be, Stefanos starts taking shifts behind the bar—an ideal trade for an out-of-work investigator. Something falls in his lap before long, but The Spot establishes itself as a home base for Stefanos, and along with its cast of regulars, together a character in their own right. There’s the off-duty cop. There’s “reader,” who only ever orders black coffee; a fellow named Happy, a perpetual frowner who takes his Manhattans on the Sahara side of dry; Melvin, who drinks rail martinis and turns troubadour after number five. It’s straight up Shakespeare, a tavern scene out of Henry IV with Marvin Gaye on the speakers and Old Grand-Dad in the beveled shot glass.
For Stefanos, The Spot is what he needs it to be: a place to hide after the violence of A Firing Offense and a base of operations in Nick’s Trip as he tracks down a friend’s missing wife and pokes around the death of a Washington City Paper reporter. In Shame The Devil, Stefanos’ last proper novel, The Spot is place of refuge for Dimitri Karras, fellow Greek and grieving father of a murdered son. Stefanos gets Karras a gig in the kitchen, and the crew becomes a stand-in family. The hard, honest work helps bring Karras back from the dead.
Food, and the act of making it, becomes cathartic. Take The Spot at closing time, when the boom box turns to salsa, the cooks start dancing, and the staff settle down for some early morning dinners and shift drinks. As Karras finds his legs in the kitchen, Pelecanos rolls around in the jargon:
“Talk about it, Dimitri.”
“I got a bacon-cheddar, rare. I got provolone, well. And I got a plain, extra rare.”
“You want it bleedin’, huh?”
“Knock the horns off it and walk it through a warm room.”
For Pelecanos, a dive bar is never just a dive bar. It’s a plot driver. It’s heart and soul. For Stefanos, it’s shelter; for Karras, it’s resurrection. “Karras smiled ear to ear. His face felt odd, and then he knew why. He had forgotten what it felt like to smile with that kind of abandon. It had been a long time.”
Spero Lucas, the protagonist of Pelecanos’ last two novels, is a man of appetites. A former Marine and veteran of Fallujah, Lucas spent his early adulthood taking orders and courting death in the desert. He’s in D.C., his hometown, to live the life he feels he missed: “Sex, work, money, and a comfortable bed. Everything he dreamed of when he was overseas,” he thinks in The Double. “A guy didn’t need anything else.”
“Lucas has big appetites in every facet of his life,” Pelecanos says, “and to him food and sex are inextricably linked.”
Throughout The Cut, Lucas’ debut, he frequents a certain class of District eateries, all mid-range, tidy, and subdued—perfect for wining and dining Constance, his lust interest. They both work for Tom Petersen, a defense attorney. Constance is the intern. Lucas’ the investigator.
Lucas has his origins in “Chosen,” a short story included in The Martini Shot. In “Chosen,” a Greek-American couple adopts three babies of different races. “I have a similar family,” Pelecanos says, “so I wanted to write about the experience, not with reverence, but rather with humor.” The story focuses on the parents, Evangelos and Eleni, with a quick postscript about their kids, Leonidis and Spero: the former teaches English at Cardozo High School, and the latter is a Marine fighting in Iraq.
“At the same time, I was talking to a criminal defense attorney I know, and he told me that he primarily hired veterans as street detectives because they’re suited for the work,” Pelecanos says. “So the idea for a book came organically from the short story.”
Lucas chases down cases, searching for evidence to bolster Petersen’s defense. It’s hands-on work, the kind he can do in Dickies and a plain white tee—no frills, no bullshit. It doesn’t pay much, but Lucas pads his wallet by working as a “recovery expert” (a plot device Pelecanos says he borrowed from John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels). Whatever he’s tasked to find, Lucas takes 40 percent of the object’s value. It’s his cut.
It’s enough. It lets him take girls like Constance out to Mourayo, the high-minded Greek restaurant north of Dupont Circle. Mourayo, in The Cut, is “…airy, with warm wood trim, white walls and hardwood floors. The busboys wore sailor shirts and fisherman caps.” They order marinated anchovies, grilled octopus with fava bean puree, sesame-encrusted halloumi cheese, and other assorted mezze. “They bake a fish that you’ll dream about,” he tells Constance, and when they wheel out the salt-baked branzino, disentomb it, and fillet the fish table-side, the reader can practically taste it. “God,” Constance says, and she means it.
Mourayo prides itself on fresh, honest food. The octopus, for example, is served without fuss—just a warm char taste and a nip of lemon. This is a higher caliber of Greek food, says manager Maurizio Luise: “It’s not souvlaki. It’s not gyros.” But despite its refinement, Mourayo’s elegance is in its simplicity.
“Spero doesn’t like pretension or irony, so he tends to go to spots where he can be comfortable,” says Pelecanos. Mourayo is a place that’s “all about the atmosphere. People from different economic backgrounds and cultures, hanging out together, and not in a self-conscious, ‘Let’s try this’ way.’”
Mourayo returns his affection in abundance. At the bar, you can order a Pelecanos Cut: Bulleit Bourbon, Rakomelo (a Greek liqueur), orange bitters, lemon juice, clove tea and a sprig of thyme. Look to the left, and you’ll see another homage in gilded Hellenic script: “The George Pelecanos Room.”
“Corny, yes,” Pelecanos says, “but it makes my mother proud, and that means something to me.”
Of all Lucas’s date spots, Mourayo most clearly preserves the Greek tradition of The Big Blowdown. Family is central to the restaurant’s ethos, Luise says, both in the sense of the larger Greek community—it counts Father John Bakas of the Greek Orthodox Saint Sophia Cathedral among its regulars—and the smaller, chosen family. Luise blushes a little when he describes how Pelecanos dropped off a gift for the manager’s newborn son—a tiny “I Love D.C.” onesie.
“He’s such a part of the family,” he says.
Where Nick Stefanos sought out places to hide from others, and himself, Lucas chooses interiors that allow him to be himself. “There’s a lot of men and women out here like me, Constance,” he tells her. They’re dining at Marvin, a Belgian/soul food fusion restaurant on 14th and U that serves moules frites alongside chicken and waffles.
“We’ve been through this war and we just look at things differently than people our age,” Lucas tells his girlfriend in The Cut. “I mean, there are certain bars I don’t hang in. The people, the conversations, they’re too frivolous. I’m not gonna sit around and have drinks with people who are, you know, ironic.”
Which explains his affection for southern cuisine—food that really means it. There’s nothing cheeky or self-referential about a half-smoke breakfast at the Florida Avenue Grill, at Florida Avenue and 11th Street NW, where Lucas meets two young men connected to a case. “It was the old city’s soul diner, the warmest spot for a real southern breakfast,” Pelecanos writes. The patrons rep the crimson-and-gold of a Certain Local Football Team, talk high school sports, “…and would have elected 88.5’s Kojo Nnamdi for mayor if only he would run.”
Lucas powers down on a plate of half-smokes split under onions, grits, two eggs over easy, biscuits, and butter. “I been dreamin’ on these half-smokes,” he says. Meals are sacred, and he takes his time, not bothering to talk business until he finishes.
In The Double, he meets a retired detective at the Hitching Post, a southern eatery on Upshur Street NW in Petworth. Lucas orders them both fried chicken sandwiches with collard greens and mac and cheese. The chicken arrives bone-in atop a slice of bread. “How one could eat it as a sandwich was one of the pleasant mysteries of the Hitching Post,” Pelecanos writes.
Ask Pelecanos to name his favorite Elmore Leonard novel, and he’ll qualify: Swag, but also Valdez Is Coming, Leonard’s Spaghetti Western masterpiece. Which is fitting—many of Pelecanos’ works, with their off-white sense of honor and code, could be construed as urban westerns. His books, like his characters, defy irony and post-modernism. Guys like Lucas are simply old-fashioned, melding their lethality with an aw-shucks sense of chivalry.
You can’t call it nostalgia, and you shouldn’t call it homage, as Pelecanos inhabits his old-school cool so completely as to make it entirely his. But when his characters get down on a meal, either in a good restaurant or surrounded by family, he imparts a sense of “…the kind of world we wanted, or said we wanted, when we were growing up around here.” That is, a world where people can get together in a welcoming space and share something, regardless of race or class. And now, Pelecanos says, it’s happening here in D.C.
“I do have complicated feelings about it,” he says. “It can be argued that the rough-edged Washington was a more interesting city than it is today.” But as he watched the U and H street corridors resurrect themselves from the riots (however unevenly), he saw the night brighten a little, with new restaurants, bars, and retail spaces replacing the ruin. Land value jumped, and some turned a profit leaving the District, though renters and those living on a fixed income suffered. He says he’d like to see more affordable housing, but from where he stands, D.C. is a better place to live—if a little less interesting.
Which is funny, given that Pelecanos has built a career on making D.C. interesting—including the latter-day district of The Cut and The Double. But reading Spero Lucas, you don’t see Pelecanos emulating a young man; you just see a younger Pelecanos. Lucas eats where Pelecanos eats. He’s the author’s way of saying that some things never change, marquee restaurants and celebrity chefs regardless.
“I try not to feel any resentment for the changes,” he says. “If you live in one place your whole life, as I have, you see buildings, businesses, and landmarks disappear, one by one, until you’re left with your memories. But they’re good memories. Nostalgia, to me, is crippling.”