At Sholl’s Colonial Cafeteria, the food rouses people’s emotions. Spoon bread is always a good bet to spark conversation in the cafeteria line. Meat loaf also has its allure. “There’s a new recipe,” one woman tells her friend in a cheery whisper I can’t help overhearing, excusing herself from a pre-dinner conversation about Safeway’s special on oranges to go investigate. At breakfast another day, one sliced banana (65 cents), two pieces of white toast (35 cents), and a cup of coffee (55 cents) is enough to inspire outrage.
“A retired person can’t even afford to eat,” a woman sitting in an electric cart grumps, so loudly that I leave my waffle and cross the dining room to see who’s getting scolded.
Such outbursts help lend Sholl’s its community-bingo-night charm. George Fleishell, the restaurant’s owner and manager, says many of his customers first formed their Sholl’s habits while working nearby government jobs. When they retired, he says, they had even more time for coffee.
“Their social life is here,” Fleishell says. “They meet their friends here, and they sit around here for several hours shooting the breeze.”
For Fleishell, Sholl’s represents not just his social scene but the long haul of his life. He shows me a folder filled with Xeroxed memorabilia that dates back to March 15, 1928, when Sholl’s first opened in the All States Hotel at 514 19th St. NW. Five years later, the restaurant moved to 1032 Connecticut Ave., where Harry Truman is said to have walked in alone one day when he was vice president to enjoy a breakfast of chipped beef and biscuits.
In the years since, Sholl’s has served such dishes as creamed ham macaroni, liver and onions, and pork chops and apple sauce in almost every corner of downtown. There were two different locations on 14th Street and a lunch counter and grill at 1020 Connecticut that was connected to the cafeteria next door. There were locations at 1219 G St. and at Vermont and K, and another in Baltimore. Fleishell even tried selling his lowbrow cuisine in Rosslyn and on Pennsylvania Avenue, ventures he refers to as “the two disasters.”
Fleishell says Sholl’s, which just celebrated its 69th birthday, hasn’t changed much over the years, and he would know. He shows me a picture taken in 1932 of a company picnic at the farm of his uncle Evan Sholl, the man who, along with his wife Gertrude, started the restaurant and raised Fleishell.
“I worked all my life in a cafeteria,” Fleishell says with firm pride and slight disbelief. He identifies himself as the 4-year-old boy in the picture.
“Ever since you were old enough to work?” I ask.
He smiles and sighs, “Even before that.”
Fleishell, who always owned stock in Sholl’s and took over its operations, along with his wife Van, shortly before his uncle’s death, has done his best to make sure that the current location (opened in 1979) reflects the restaurant’s history. Everything from the wooden railing separating the food line from the dining room to the tart rhubarb pie to the pictures of Jesus on the wall are artifacts from the days of Evan Sholl, a convert to Catholicism with a taste for unfussy cuisine and spare design.
The cafeteria gets a daily dose of raw youth in the form of touring schoolkids who arrive by the busload, but generally it’s the older folks who own the place. It’s a tough crowd to shock. Diners are just briefly fazed when my friend performs the Heimlich maneuver on a choking woman; even the victim gets back to her beef stew without giving him a second look.
Sholl’s cuisine is hearty enough to inspire such single-mindedness. The best dishes are strictly old-schoolthe smoky home-baked ham, the smooth egg salad, the crisp corned beef hash, the flaky chicken à la king, the Jell-O. You’re not likely to hear any gripes if a customer gets some mashed potatoes that are only just warmthat’s what the microwave is for. After all, Sholl’s main draw is economic, which means that the prices, much like the recipes, are welcome relics from the past. You pay for everything, from the butter (5 cents) to the cole slaw (35 cents), but you’d still be hard pressed to fill a tray with more than six bucks worth of food. At $3.50, the neckties in the small gift shop are a stealas well as one of the costlier items Sholl’s sells.
Retaining such retro pricing isn’t cheap. With the rents on K Street being what they are, it’s no surprise that Fleishell says his efforts to provide good, inexpensive food make for a “constant struggle.” He has no immediate plans to open up any new locations.
“We do anything to keep the prices down,” says Van. Whenever she can, Van works in the gift shop selling D.C.-related T-shirts, ties, and hats to tourists, which, along with sale of box lunches and income from Sholl’s catering service, helps guard against shrinking profit margins. “This history is expensive,” remarks a passing customer who has been listening to our conversation. Van sighs and nods.
Sholl’s Colonial Cafeteria, 1990 K St. NW. (202) 296-3065.
“In Arlington, Village Bistro is the place to be seen at lunch,” says Brenda, a reader. As far as she’s concerned, this is a fact. Why? “I lost my virginity in Arlington. I should know.” OK. Perhaps if I’d lost my cherry nearby I could get someone to bring me a basket of bread. I need some to soak up the garlic butter left over from my wild mushroom sauté and the cognac cream sauce in my veal scaloppine, which is brought to me first even though it’s an entree and the mushrooms are not. Both are lovely, by the way. If I could only get someone’s attention, I’d tell her so.
Village Bistro, 1723 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. (703) 522-0284.Brett Anderson
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