Tuesday night is movie night at Randy’s Cafe. Randy’s is a one-room restaurant with low-hanging lights and two bathrooms, one of which always seems to be out of order; the place is not equipped with a movie projector. There’s not even a big-screen television. But the standard-size TV mounted to the ceiling serves Randy’s purposes just fine. When I call to ask about the weekly event, the woman who answers explains that at about 7 p.m. people are invited inside to watch a movie while they eat. I suspect there must be more to it, but when I arrive and order a bowl of dense black bean and sausage soup in the middle of My Fair Lady, I realize that she has described the occasion pretty much to a T.
If Randy’s isn’t exactly nightlife heaven, it certainly provides a welcome oasis from conceptual overload. The restaurant is located on the edge of 17th Street’s buzzing strip of restaurants and bars, but Randy’s doesn’t send up many flares to make itself stand out. The corner restaurant is laid out like one of those small-town diners where gossip moves faster than life. An assortment of faux butcher-block tables can be pushed together or spread apart to accommodate parties of any size. At night, when no light shines in through the large windows on the restaurant’s two streetside walls, a candle in a small tin lantern is placed on each table.
Randy’s menu is comprised of what I’ve always called summer food: simple sandwiches and salads, friendly pasta dishes. Which is appropriate, because along 17th Street during the warmer months, a restaurant’s patio is its main draw. All the more so at Randy’s, because it has no liquor license. There’s no big, physical barrier enclosing the patio, so the restaurant bleeds onto the sidewalk, the food on each outside table serving as free advertising.
Passers-by are likely to see informal dishes prepared with no more or less care than they might treat themselves to at home. Occasionally this means that an item will leave you wondering why you even bothered to eat out. There’s nothing wrong with the house salad, for example, except that it’s obvious that the greens and pinkie-size carrots come from those bags of fresh, pre-washed veggies you can buy at Safeway. At brunch one Sunday (all you can eat for $9.95), an apparent platter shortage is handled by simply placing a pile of danishes, muffins, and rolls directly on the buffet table.
But ordinary cuisine is not the same as bland cuisine, and more often than not, Randy’s serves the type of meals you’ll later crave. It doesn’t take a maestro to throw julienne vegetables together with pasta and Italian dressing, but Randy’s pasta salad is representative of the strengths of the Cafe’s kitchenit’s an unfussy recipe that happens to work. Similar mixtures are applied to a choice of breads to make sandwiches. In the chicken salad, grill-striped morsels of meat are tossed with olive oil and slices of peppers, carrots, and onions. Randy’s tuna-salad sandwich takes the tired standard and fashions it a new personality. The fish is fresh and the salad is mayonnaise-free; olive oil is used instead, along with peppers, capers, onions, chives, and dill. Sick of BLTs? Try one with a slice of raw onion and you may reconsider. (My one complaint with Randy’s new, slightly revised menu: What happened to the rosemary-spiced ham?)
The pastas at Randy’s are less compelling than the sandwiches only because they’re prepared pretty much by the book. Still, what most of the dishes lack in style they make up for with full-bodied sauces and plain-old noodle volume. Skip the alfredo and the primavera and stick with the redsa chunky marinara that leaves behind traces of sweetness; a meaty Bolognese; a light, pinkish mixture spiked with asparagus spears. But the chicken St. Tropezfeta, peppers, olive oilneeds garlic in a bad way. And the pesto is a little timid, but that’s nothing some sun-dried tomatoes (95 cents extra) can’t fix.
Randy’s is far from perfect; a tattooed waitress who’s running herself ragged one night tells me as much. But there’s a captivating DIY spirit in the way the employees run the place, from the almost accidental charm of movie night to the surprisingly sublime cheese-toast appetizer (“Why not cheese toast?” responds another waitress when I ask the obvious question) to the bubbles drawn on the handwritten specials board (“We have Perrier!” it screams). Before Randy’s opened last August, I’m sure some of these same people were gathered in an apartment hashing out a plan. “We could open a damn restaurant,” one of them probably said.
Randy’s Cafe, 1517 17th St. NW. (202) 387-5399.
By the time Joanie finally quit loving Chachi, the damage had already been done: New American diners were doomed to become television-style entertainment. Its waitresses don’t wear rollerskates, but the American City Diner is still a good example of the phenomenon. Littered with clattering electronic games, bad retro music, and garish neon, ACD makes it nearly impossible to have a peaceful meal; it’s enough to make you hope the Fonz walks in and shuts off all the noise with a snap of his fingers. Too bad, really, because the shakes and onion rings are great.
American City Diner, 5532 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 244-1949.Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.