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The first time Eunice Ramsey really worried about losing her job was roughly 12 years ago. In 1988, the career waitress already knew what the local newspaper was reporting: The Tastee Diner in Silver Spring, where, at the time, Ramsey had worked for 33 years, had a date with the wrecking ball. “I still have the sign that says ‘Closing August 1,’” Ramsey chuckles, slightly amused that the scheduled day for destruction fell on her birthday.
The Tastee Diner made it through that August day unscathed, yet Ramsey has never escaped her fear of being unemployed. This summer, Ramsey finally cut back to a four-day workweek after 43 years of lugging corned beef hash and flapjacks, but still, she says, she’ll only “rest easy when the dust settles.”
For over a decade now, Silver Spring’s Tastee Diner has stood at the center of a complicated tangle of commerce and politics that has left its destiny uncertain and brought its historical significance up for public debate. Tastee has sat at the corner of Georgia and Wayne Avenues for more than 60 years, on the edge of a larger property known as the Silver Triangle. But it won’t for much longer. Hanging next to a bulletin board of yellowed newspaper clippings on one side of the diner’s front counter is an architect’s depiction of Tastee’s fate. “That’s supposed to be what it will look like,” Ramsey remarks, gesturing at the color drawing of a new, futuristic Tastee, which, after the main dining-car portion of the existing diner is moved and renovated, will sit in a parking lot a few blocks north of the current location. “After working here since high school, it will be strange to work in someplace different,” Ramsey says. “But our customers are loyal. They’ll follow us.”
Documentation of the red tape that led to Tastee’s impending movewhich owner Gene Wilkes figures will transpire next springfills three bulging folders in Montgomery County’s historic preservation office. At the crux of Tastee’s predicament lies the potential value of the real estate it sits on, which far exceeds the prospective profits of a business that offers a 16-ounce porterhouse with a choice of two vegetables for $6.95. If the diner’s fate were at the mercy of sound economic principles alone, its griddles would have been silenced years ago.
Rumors that Tastee would fall prey to redevelopment date back to ’86, and its fiercely loyal patrons have been swift to mobilize in its defense. The diner has had its share of celebrity customers over the years: A young Goldie Hawn, whose father had a jewelry store across the street, was a onetime regular; and the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown was fond of Tastee’s hotcakes. But, as befits the diner’s weathered, 1940s-era authenticity, its most ferocious advocates are common folk whose love borders on the ravenous. “If this kind of lunacy is being prompted by the most educated, then I see very little hope for the masses!” one loyalist wrote the county’s planning board 12 years ago when she heard rumblings of the diner’s demise. “I appeal to your humanity and intellect to realize that progress as we have known it in Montgomery County is progressing us toward distruction [sic]!” More recently, an aspiring filmmaker found time to publish a Tastee fanzine in between writing drafts of a screenplay based on his experiences at the diner.
But Tastee fell into real danger in the late ’80s, when developer Lloyd Moore bought the Silver Triangle property. By the early ’90s, the diner’s army of protectors was doing its part to foil plans for the American Dream shopping and entertainment complex proposedand later unproposedfor the Tastee site. The reported numbers of signatures collected in the ensuing “Save the Tastee” petition and letter-writing campaign vary wildly; I’ve heard 12,000. “I’m sure it was more than that,” says Ramsey. “We had customers calling in crying. There was people calling from Ocean City and Richmond. We got TV coverage in California.”
Virtually overnight, the diner went from embattled institution to political force, and it had history on its side. In 1994, after years of deliberation, Tastee was officially deemed a historic site, thereby shielded from extinction. The honorific designation “is what I believe has made the politicians want to save it,” says Wilkes, who also owns Tastees in Laurel and Bethesda. But though the members of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission called the diner “exceptionally significant as an extremely rare building type and a classic example of Art Deco/Moderne commercial architecture,” they also built in a loophole that surely appeases developer Moore. The so-called “core” of the diner, the main dining-car-type space, which was trucked in from New Jersey in 1946 to replace the original building, is the part being called historically valuablenot the subsequent additions or the land on which it sits. And since that structure is technically portable, Moore didn’t have to sweat the diner’s protected status when seeking approval to build the Discovery Channel’s future world headquarters in the Silver Triangle.
Gwen Wright, who works for the preservation commission, but doesn’t hold a seat on it, concedes that the Tastee arrangement is rare, pointing out that the original location of a historic site is usually central to its history. “But diners are unique structures,” she adds. “They were designed to be transportable….That is part of the nature of this modern form of restaurant architecture.”
Nonetheless, the compromises lubricating the Tastee move (the diner will also receive government relocation money in exchange for housing a tourist kiosk at the new site) were probably necessary to save it at all; if the Silver Spring Armory, which was also a historic site, could have been loaded onto a truck, it might not have been demolished to make room for, among other things, a Gap. Personally, Ramsey is simply happy that she didn’t have to resort to her Plan B. “My daughter once asked, ‘Mom, what are you gonna do if they close?’ I said, ‘I’m gonna sit down on the curb and cry.’”
Tastee Diner, 8516 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, (301) 589-8171.
One reader likes to initiate the “red meat season” with a visit to Cuzco to indulge in the Peruvian cuisine and gawk at the salsa enthusiasts who come to dance on the weekends. The menu is about as beefy as they come; I’m partial to the house stews, my favorite of which contains deep-flavored, fist-sized beef chunks and a generous portion of beans and rice. If you’re not looking to build a polar-bear layer of fat, try the chicken salad, which is scooped into avocado boats, dolloped with ketchup, and sprinkled with olivescertainly not your mom’s bridge-club fare.
Cuzco, 5831 Columbia Pike, Falls Church, (703) 845-1661.
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