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After slipping into our booth, I order a cup of coffee and introduce myself to Sujewa Ekanayake, who’s been waiting here at the Tastee Diner in Silver Spring for some time. If hanging out at the Diner weren’t something of a ritual for Ekanayake, a habit he’s arguably more compulsive about than steady employment, I’d apologize more profusely for my tardiness. But with a scrapbook of photos, a stack of what look to be important documents, and a fresh plate of home fries in front of him, he’s in his element.
Ekanayake’s mood is serious but not dour. He hands me a black folder. Inside is an envelope addressed to me—“Our brother in the struggle”—with a warning inscribed in the lower left-hand corner: “Must not fall into the hands of the Enemy!”
“The Brothers wrote you a letter,” Ekanayake says without smiling. “They wanted me to give it to you. Go ahead and read it.”
Feeling a bit strange, as if I might soon be dispatched on some dangerous assignment, I open the letter. The handwritten message inside regards the so-called Tastee Renaissance and begins with a quote from John T. Livingston’s “Sunday morning speech #11 at Tastee Diner smoking section booth #4, on July 8, 1993, to the Righteous Spreaders of Love, Literature, and Lemonade.”
The apocalyptic quote from the speech—“Certain truths, in the hands of the ill-informed or the negative or those who are threatened by substance and style, can be extremely dangerous”—is followed by what I deem to be the Tastee Renaissance’s manifesto. It reads, in part: “The Tastee Renaissance is the coming together of a few sincere young men and women for the celebration of their existence….In addition to being talented artists, all members, old and new, share an affinity for the Tastee Diner Silver Spring and the stylish, progressive, humorous, and meaningful values it represents.”
I’m not the sort to belittle a man for his passions, in particular a man whose vision of artistic revolution is inspired by Formica tables, warm pie, and free coffee refills. I fold up the letter and look Ekanayake in the eye. “Wow,” I say. Then I order a T-bone, medium, with A-1 and fries.
Ekanayake is a 23-year-old filmmaker, and he loves the Tastee Diner. Rock concerts and dates are the only events he says will keep him from making a daily pilgrimage to Silver Spring. “Most of my girlfriends I’ve met here,” Ekanayake says. “People that I’ve dated that I haven’t met here, my first date is usually here.”
He’s the grand poobah of the Tastee Renaissance, a group of artists Ekanayake says are currently involved in various creative endeavors: a film, a novel, several bands. The group recently organized a concert in Silver Spring to benefit My Sister’s Place, a shelter for abused women and their children. Ekanayake even edits a fanzine, Notes From Tastee Diner, comprised of prose and art created by Diner enthusiasts. The next issue, which Ekanayake says will be expanded to feature interviews with the likes of Ian MacKaye and Jenny Toomey’s dad, who owns a diner in New York, won’t be out until March. But don’t think the guy will be slacking off in the meantime: Ekanayake has a band with a name, Mystery Train, and a practice space, but he still needs to learn how to play guitar and sing. And he’s working on the final draft of a screenplay, the first in a trilogy he plans to make centered on Silver Spring. The movie’s working title? Tastee Diner.
“I could have moved to Chicago, L.A., or New York,” explains Ekanayake, who studied film at Chicago’s Columbia College before coming to D.C. in 1992. “But I came back to D.C. partly because Maryland’s a very cool place and because of Tastee. I wouldn’t want to live here, but it’s very tranquil. I like being able to come here; it has a mystical quality to it. Hi, Sheila.”
Ekanayake’s voracious affection for Tastee is admittedly bizarre, but it’s fueled mostly by a genuine ambition to cultivate a creative community that lets anyone get in on the ground floor. There is, of course, a dry sense of humor to it all: When Ekanayake’s friends and fellow artists stop by our booth, they grin when informed that an interview’s taking place. But no one seems to flinch when Ekanayake repeatedly compares his efforts to the those of the Harlem Renaissance, the Beats, or D.C.’s own punk rock movement. The only difference, he says, is in the Tastee insistence on inclusiveness.
“The Tastee scene is anti-snobbish. We have enough of that in D.C.,” Ekanayake says, working on a platter of fried fish. “Just because someone is not a part of the Tastee scene doesn’t mean we don’t love them.”
But the Tastee Renaissance does have its biases. There are three other Tastee Diners besides the Silver Spring location, in Fairfax, Laurel, and Bethesda, all of them greasy spoons that faintly resemble diners like the ones immortalized in Tom Waits songs. But there’s only one Tastee that Ekanayake considers worthy of his devotion.
“I haven’t been to Laurel. I haven’t been to Fairfax. I’ve been to Bethesda. But this is the Tastee,” Ekanayake says. “Fairfax I can see being close to Silver Spring. But Bethesda is way too well maintained. Bethesda doesn’t have stuff like that,” he says, pointing to a hole in the fiberglass window that separates the Diner’s smoking and nonsmoking sections. “I mean, Bethesda functions like a regular restaurant. Who needs that?”
A few moments later, a waitress yells to no one in particular in the smoking section. “Hey, we need someone back in the kitchen to cook some food.”
The amorphous quality that draws Ekanayake to Tastee daily—his “shift” is usually from 9 p.m. until midnight, when the last Metro leaves—becomes clearer when he proudly shows me a photo project he’s working on documenting the Diner’s many faces and events. There’s the wandering writer from Oregon who was in town doing research on a book about “bold women in American history.” The novelist who’s busy working on an “epic.” “The former lead singer of the Skunks’ brother.” Some dude who looks like William Burroughs. Or Ekanayake’s “wandering astrologer friend: He’s an expert on Jimi Hendrix, astrology, and conspiracy theories. He’s a great guy to hang out with.”
Ekanayake says he’s “looked hard” for other hangouts, but to no avail. I’m sure it’s hard to duplicate the ambience of a place that, as Ekanayake writes in his ’zine, “is a warm, moist, sympathetic intersection in time.”
Tastee Diner, 8516 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring. (301) 589-8171.
Granja de Oro’s menu says that the house specialty, chicken served whole or on a bun, is “low cholesterol.” It’s no lie. The chicken itself is virtually greaseless, baked Peruvian style over hardwood charcoal. But we prefer our fowl with dangerous company, and the restaurant’s chicken sandwich fits the bill. Topped by what I’d guess is close to a pound of melted cheese, the Granja de Oro sandwich will do battle with your better judgment and probably win. The secret ingredient is on the bun: butter.
Granja de Oro Chicken a la Braza, 1801 Adams Mill Rd. NW. (202) 232-8888.—Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.