Diners are as uniquely American as bistros are French, and despite what the practically dinerless landscape of D.C. proper may suggest, the institution is not an endangered species. Merely the sound of a sizzling griddle contains so much home-grown romanticism that if diners were at any real risk of extinction, the populace would surely support government intervention to right the matter. Down-and-outers have to eat somewhere, and with the Grateful Dead kaput and baseball’s ticket prices flying out of the park, society may have no better catalyst for uniting the cash-poor and the cash-fortunate than a two-dollar plate of flapjacks, choice of meat included.
The Adams Morgan neighborhood could stand for a dose of folksy traditionalism, and the 18th & U Duplex Diner aims to fill the need. Granted, Duplex is not a diner in the purest sense, but it is Americansort of like the Gap. When Tom Waits was gathering material for his classic Nighthawks at the Diner, it’s unlikely that he came across any bottles of garlic-infused olive oil or unsalted ketchup.
Juxtaposing exposed-brick walls and nightclub music with meatloaf and what the menu calls “garlic mashed po’s,” Duplex refers to a classic diner more than it tries to be onean approach that presents plenty of contradictions. This is certainly the first restaurant I’ve tried where you can follow a plate of pizza bagels with an entree of rosemary-flecked salmon garnished with corn salsa.
Faced with such mismatches, it’s useful to know that in spite of the appealing, sharp-angled slickness of Duplex’s design, the kitchen is at its best when it’s consciously slumming. A plate of thumb-sized sausages wrapped in delicate pastry, propped against a pile of sauerkraut, and paired with perfectly crisp tater tots is unquestionably the menu highlightpigs in a blanket, just the way you remember them, except they’re dressed to swing. The only real dinerlike sandwiches are an oozy, burly hamburger and a grilled cheese with tomato, which is lovely even though the near-ubiquitous corn relish sits in the rightful place of french fries. Duplex’s take on mac and cheese is creamy and sinfully oily, and, thanks to a dash of red pepper and a side of garlicky green beans, has a presence that allows it to succeed as an entree.
But the diner’s menu isn’t just short on homey items; it’s just short. The conspicuous lack of breakfast food is owing to the fact that, except for Sunday brunch, Duplex is open for dinner only, but otherwise I blame the menu’s brevity on the kitchen’s lack of imaginationan attribute real diners don’t even need. The menu’s fleshed out with those standbys you sometimes crave but could live without eating againquesadillas; grilled portobello sandwich; chicken served as tenders, as a sandwich, and as the kind of overly sweet entree that was in vogue during the Reagan era.
“Is it possible to screw up a Caesar salad?” a friend asked recently. Apparently it is: The one I’m served at Duplex is best described as a plate of dressing that happens to be garnished with leaves of lettuce. There are more salads on the menu than anything else, and none of them can be accused of daintiness; the Duplex salad is weighted down by logs of mozzarella and cheddar so big that you could wrap them in plastic and bring them to the office picnic.
The bright side is that Duplex often offsets its mediocrity with relative successes. If you order wrong, you’ll certainly have room for dessert, and the apple pie is worthy of its scoop of vanilla ice cream. Sometimes the atmosphere can be perplexing; one evening I wonder whether the guy cranking the disco music even knows that it’s Tuesday and not yet dark. But late at night, when Duplex becomes a hotspot, the same soundtrack makes sense, and the roomy booths are a godsend for anyone who’s ever wished for another bar where you can sit and actually talk.
The staff seems keenly aware that chummy service is crucial at a restaurant that aims above all to serve its neighborhood. So it’s too bad that good intentions alone can’t compensate for the diner’s disregard for history. When we ask our waiter one night to explain why there are no blue-plate specials, he says it’s probably to avoid a legal tangle with Blue Plate, as if the term had been coined a few years ago by that restaurant in Dupont Circle.
18th & U Duplex Diner, 2004 18th St. NW, (202) 265-7828.
The only thing Adams Morgan needed more than a diner was a coffee joint, something the crowds at Tryst have been proving since Day One. Supplanting an Up Against the Wall and a small grocery that almost nobody noticed when it existed, Tryst wasn’t open a week before it felt as if it’d been around for years. Tryst is a coffeehouse in the modern sense, meaning it’s been fused with a lounge to accommodate a broader selection of tastes for chemical consumption and public sloth. A pressed-tin ceiling covers a large, open space for loitering, the bar is fully stocked and furnished with stools, and the front opens up to put table diners on the cusp of the sidewalk. No one will discourage you from rearranging the clusters of thrift-shop furniture to better suit your posse, and mushy, solitary armchairs welcome loners looking to disappear behind a magazine. Food is practically beside the point, but there’s plenty of it, and much of it is even good. A boutique selection of bread and cheese elevates sandwiches to that echelon above ham-and-swiss, and waffles are notably airy and available with fruit. Pastries are hit-or-missthe almond croissant amounts to a sugar ball, but the flaky apple tart is deliciousand they come from all over; one staffer’s list of baked-goods suppliers includes Marvelous Market, Uptown Bakers, and “this guy Alex.” Neighboring establishments serving only dinner should note that the new kid on the block is enjoying both a breakfast and a lunch rushnot to mention overflow traffic on weekend nights. Talk about filling a need.
Tryst Coffeehouse, 2459 18th St. NW, (202) 232-5500.
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