LAUREL — The small Tastee Diner chain, opened in 1935, is a venerable staple in the historic districts of Laurel, Bethesda and Silver Spring. Anticipating Independence Day, I took a trip to a couple of these restaurants in the chain to experience a bit of Americana as American as the Fourth of July – or as apple pie, keeping with the diner theme.
The Laurel location at 118 Washington Boulevard is likely of most interest to Prince George’s Sentinel readers. The Tastee Diner chain has been such a staple of suburban Washington life since the first half of the 1900’s that when the Discovery Building was placed in downtown Silver Spring, the Silver Spring Tastee Diner in its original building was moved from Georgia Avenue to Cameron Street.
Diners, of course, are not only about history, but primarily about food. Remembering the quote attributed to Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken that “crabs may be prepared in fifty ways and that all of them are good,” I began with crab cakes at both the Bethesda and Laurel locations. In both cases they were excellent with a bit of spice and tangy bay seasoning. A black-and-white photograph on the wall near me of people strolling along the boardwalk of Ocean City, Maryland, in 1930 gave this crab adventure additional seaside atmosphere.
We added to this the Sunday Blue Plate Special of Chicken Florentine in Bethesda — the chicken tasted good but rendered a bit dry by herbs on top. It was with the tuna sandwich that we noticed one thing that has changed: the diner’s erstwhile reasonable prices. Tastee Diner Bethesda now charges $7.95 for a tuna fish sandwich and a $2.50 coke.
“A better value could possibly be had at a chain sandwich place like the Corner Bakery,” noted one patron. Yet he quickly observed such modern venues are lacking in memories and ambience.
On this topic, the table jukebox gives Tastee Diner a special aura. The classic table jukeboxes were turned into lamps and sold as specialty items some time ago in Laurel. They have been replaced with more modern jukebox styles, but Bethesda still retains the classic style. One rotates the playlists manually and finds music from another era — the era of the American diner: “Till Then” by the Mills Brothers, “You’re Driving Me Crazy” by Ella Fitzgerald and “There’s a Tear in My Beer” by Hank Williams Jr. and Sr. (Sorry, diners are not known for serving alcohol).
As I sipped a coffee quite a bit better than I remember in diners past, waitress Eliana in Bethesda told me that people come from overseas and far parts of America to visit Tastee Diner, saying that they remember it from a childhood spent in Bethesda in their youth, despite the exterior being altered in Bethesda significantly from its original design.
“It is amazing that after almost 85 years the same food place is still open,” said Eliana who hails from Brazil.
Open for business and thriving, both Laurel and Bethesda locations boast regular customers for whom Tastee Diner is like a second home.
The 29 Diner in Fairfax, built in 1946, used to be part of the Tastee Diner chain. While no longer part of the chain, it is it is worth mentioning here because it recalls the history of the development of diners. Long and narrow inside, of all the Tastee Diners past and present perhaps it most resembles the railway dining car. Indeed, the experience is somewhat like sitting in the narrow car of a train.
“From the onset of the diner craze in the late twenties, when hard-edged Pullman cars and trolleys were adapted to use as restaurants, diners evolved into the sleek confections of porcelain enamel, stainless steel and glass block that would dazzle roadside America throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s,” Hans Wirz and Richard Striner said in their discussion of Tastee Diners in their book “Washington Deco.”
This Art Deco look, echoed in the streamlined red and metallic exterior of the Laurel location, is still de rigueur for modern constructions of new buildings in the national Silver Diner chain. Before returning to Laurel in our diner journey, we cannot leave the 29 Diner in Fairfax without commenting on their excellent buttermilk pancakes with maple syrup!
At the end of my visit to Laurel, the waitress Joy refilled my coffee as I was deciding between blueberry, cherry, and apple pie. She told stories of the personality of the diner which has kept several of the waitresses working there for decades. Joy, who has worked at the Laurel location for 40 years, reminded me that the location made national news when it was robbed, though she could not remember the date, saying wistfully, “Here I lose track of how time passes.”
Indeed, there is something timeless about the 24-hour Tastee Diners, always ready to welcome old friends and new customers alike for a visit.