City Paper is not for tourists
As I spoon ranch dressing over Cafe Americanstyle’s house salad, a period piece of torn romaine, shaved carrots, and tomato wedges, I catch Mildred Young out of the corner of my eye. “Now, don’t you worry,” she says, gesturing with her right hand, the one holding a coffee cup and saucer. “There’s no fat in there whatsoever. Not an ounce. It’s just buttermilk and some herbs. We make it right back here. Right back here. Some people, they don’t want to eat it. And I tell them: There’s no fat in there whatsoever. Not an ounce.”
Young stops in her tracks, hands me a basket of crackers (“Just so you have something to nibble on”), and continues her monologue. As if I required further proof of the dressing’s health benefits, she boasts that she has neither lost nor gained a pound in 12 years. She did have cancer for a while, but the meds her doctor prescribed helped her through, and she still feels indebted to the man who cured her. She’s careful to add, “His wife knows I love him. She comes in here all the time.”
Young, with her Virginia accent, breathlessly dispenses information along these lines for several minutes, touching on everything from peach frozen yogurt to the generosity of her boss. I simply nod—she leaves little space for second-party comments. And then, all of a sudden, she ambles into the kitchen. She’s not even my waitress.
Like all of Cafe Americanstyle’s waitresses (there are no male servers), Young wears a black uniform with a white apron—just the kind of get-up you’d expect to see worn by employees in a small-town cafe circa, say, 1955. Her gait looks a little pained; she slouches forward as she walks. At 82, Young falls right into the demographic of the cafe’s primary clientele. And even after 12 years of working the restaurant’s front lines, the golden-haired waitress is not the most experienced employee in the house—just its most famous.
“She’s my Michael Jordan,” explains Americanstyle’s manager, Martin Ramos, “because I want to be like her when I get that age.”
Ramos is surrounded by elderly role models; the restaurant would hardly exist without them. Americanstyle sits inside the Lord & Taylor department store in Chevy Chase, a free-standing relic from the pre-mall era. The restaurant’s been in operation since 1959, the year L&T opened, and aside from its transformation from walk-through cafeteria to sit-down cafe more than a decade back, the eatery has changed remarkably little in 40-plus years. The regulars, a noticeable chunk of whom are retired people, don’t like change. Ramos says he has customers who eat the same lunch five days a week.
“I used to work at Hamburger Hamlet,” Ramos explains, “and they had regulars there. But it was nothing like this.”
Americanstyle caters to its customers’ time-worn tastes. The menu is a time warp of staples: fruit salad, quiche, fresh-baked cheddar-cheese biscuits, sour-cream coffee cake, straightforward chicken-vegetable soup, tea sandwiches that arrive with their crusts trimmed. In deference to the customers’ persnickety palates, Ramos says, Americanstyle’s food contains virtually no added salt and only mild spices. “Like mashed potatoes,” the manager offers. “Everywhere you go you have garlic and salt and pepper. Here we don’t. We keep it really simple, like it was 30, 40 years ago.”
When Ramos came on board 20 months ago, part of his mandate was to keep things the way they used to be. Having waitresses rotate their sections was one of the few changes he instilled. Ramos explains that his regulars are demanding, and many were so steadfast in their devotion to a particular waitress that they’d refuse to be served by any others. By mixing up the waitresses’ serving areas, he says, he allowed newer staffers to become familiar with more customers, thereby remedying what we’ll refer to as the Mildred phenomenon: Before he started moving his help around, Ramos says that the cafe would sit nearly half-empty on Mondays and Tuesdays—Young’s days off.
Americanstyle’s dining room does not warn of an experience greater than stale retail eating; it’s spare and aggressively rectangular, virtually undecorated save for its paintings, many of which represent the fruits of various regulars’ artistic impulses. Interior architecture is never going to be the appeal of a restaurant that serves picture-book meatloaf, a choice of drink, and dessert for under $8. And it’s even cheaper if you’ve got the proper credentials. Among the restaurant’s sundry money-saving offers is a program that allows students at Oasis, an organization that offers classes for “mature adults,” a 10 percent discount.
The regulars harbor reasons for their devotion to the place. One fit 60-something drives over from Northeast three times a week simply because, as she puts it, “There’s something about the ambiance.” A white-haired woman who, like every other diner I speak with, won’t give her name (“I don’t want a whole slew of advertising in the mail,” she says, echoing the others’ concerns), relies on Ramos to personally drive her in for lunch. She says she can’t remember when she first started frequenting Americanstyle. When I ask why the restaurant continues to be a habit, she replies, “Prices are good. Food is good. And I live at home alone, so why shouldn’t I come here?”
Cafe Americanstyle, 5255 Western Ave. NW, (202)
Neiman Marcus’ R Room sits just across the parking lot from Lord & Taylor’s Americanstyle, but spiritually speaking, the restaurant exists in another universe. The menu’s as forward-looking as some of the shoes for sale next door—which isn’t always a good thing. Pureed spring vegetables are smooth and warm, with a dollop of crème fraîche, but my crispy red snapper entree is flat-out puzzling: Frying seems to have toughened the fish, and the lentil pool surrounding it simply doesn’t match—it’s too close in taste to some canned soups to be taken seriously. Needless to say, Ramos says that there’s no rivalry between the two department-store offshoots.
R Room, 5300 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 237-6844. —Brett Anderson
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