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The people who settle in at Bob & Edith’s Diner at 3:30 a.m. seek bliss. The most visibly satisfied are those seated in front of something hot and yellow, mostly omelets or some other version of eggs. The diner is noisy, so crowded you have to wait in line for a seat. But the people eating hardly speak. It’s either their first or last meal of the day, and with sleep so close at hand, conversation is not a priority.
Bliss is harder to achieve for others. Given the time of day, many here are eating away, instead of sleeping off, an alcohol buzz. The three Army dudes next to me at the counter are in this state of pseudo-consciousness. Knowing they’ll be prone to unpredictable mood swings, I gently nudge the guy next to me and politely ask him to pass the ketchup—my cheeseburger has just arrived. He doesn’t seem to hear me, so I ask again. And then again. After 11 or 12 inquiries, my tone has gone from cordial to sarcastic to rude, and the guy closest to me finally asks if I’ve got a problem. I say nothing and reach over his plate of blueberry waffles for the Heinz. He tells me I could have asked, and then proceeds to get into an argument with someone near the door. The guy at the door has a green mohawk. The guy next to me has a crew cut. Bob & Edith’s is apparently not big enough for both styles. Bliss eludes the hair warriors.
In daylight, Bob & Edith’s looks like the rest of Arlington. The diner’s been open for 27 years—not long enough for it to really be classic, but the place is too dated to be modern. It sits close enough to an Exxon station that each business seems to be invading the other’s parking lot. The diner is slightly elevated, so if you sit in a window you look down on the cars traveling Columbia Pike. A high-rise casts a shadow over the 24-hour greasy spoon, and the proximity of other apartment buildings helps Bob & Edith’s stay busy.
“We’ll never run out of locals,” says Christine Sloane, the manager and grill maestro. “But we also get people all the time who come from places we’ve never heard of.”
Why anyone would travel a great distance for an ordinary cup of coffee and a plate of eggs is at first hard to understand. Bob & Edith’s serves good diner food: The soup’s always hot, the meatloaf should bring to mind your mother’s, and all the breakfast items are prepared the way you’d fix them yourself, if you could ever stand to deal with the mess. My usual order is an American cheese omelet with bacon, and either corned beef hash or home fries on the side. It’s enough chow to allow you to skip a meal, and with coffee, juice, and tip is less than 10 bucks. But the food is no big deal, really, unless you get a ringside seat at the counter where you can watch the grillmasters prepare it.
At first, Sloane’s grace has to be pointed out to me. Sitting next to me is a man who looks enough like August Wilson that I’m only half-joking when I ask him if he’s ever written a play. “Not really,” he tells me and points his fork toward Sloane. “But if I did, she’d be in it, man. This is some inspiring shit. She’s like a gymnast.”
“Whatever, dude,” I think. Wilson’s a little out of it. Then I begin to notice what he’s talking about. Sloane is an ageless woman with dark hair and no wrinkles to speak of, except when she smiles. She manages food on the grill like a mother would a brood of brats; she has to be manic just to keep things under control. She loads potatoes onto the corner of the grill literally by the bucket; periodically she’ll thrust her spatula into the pile, rotating the top layer to the bottom. At one point, Sloane is tending two cuts of ham, a pound of hash, two omelets, four fried eggs, a steak, a burger, three unidentified objects, and half a pig’s worth of bacon and sausage—all with one hand. With the other she cracks eggs into a bowl and throws the shells into a basket behind her in a motion so fluid Wilson comments that she probably has a major-league fastball. Somehow, in the midst of all the commotion, she finds time to butter toast, take orders, and combine the proper items on their respective plates and deal them out like cards. It’s certainly enough work for four hands, but I tell Wilson his gymnast analogy might be pushing it.
Then Sloane floors us. “I’m fine, honey. How are you?” Sweet as a nun, and without missing a beat, she answers the phone. Wilson and I high-five.
The next several times I’m at Bob & Edith’s, Sloane is limping. She has worked at the diner for 10 years—the first three days as a waitress, the rest at the grill—so I guess she finally got careless and poured grease down her leg. “I’ve got 22 years’ experience working at diners,” she protests. “If it gets to the point when I can’t do it well, I won’t do it at all.” Turns out she snapped her ankle coming out of an elevator while on vacation. “I didn’t even make it to the hotel room and I was on my way to the hospital,” she cracks.
Given the nature of her work—eight-hour shifts with few breaks, if any—I figure Sloane’s no stranger to Ben-Gay. At the very least, she must have some stories to tell; after all, she used to work the graveyard shift. But I’m wrong on both counts.
“You have to remember, honey,” Sloane says with a chuckle. “I traveled with the circus for 10 years.”
Bob & Edith’s Diner, 2310 Columbia Pike, Arlington. (703) 920-6103.
Brookland resident Laura Collins takes exception to Y&H’s insistence (10/25) that Ellis Island is the only worthwhile restaurant in her neighborhood. “You might want to do your homework a little better next time,” she says. “Colonel Brooks’ Tavern has been in the neighborhood for years. It’s packed every night. They have live music. They’re expanding. There’s a lot going on.” Collins is right about the action: On the night I visit there’s a Dixieland band, dancing, and only a few places to sit. What is not going on is the chicken pot pie; it’s barely modified chicken soup that has been poured into a hollow hunk of bread that is soon made soggy by the thin, dull broth. Stick with the potato-leek soup. It has taste.
Colonel Brooks’ Tavern, 901 Monroe St. NE. (202) 529-4002.—Brett Anderson