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The Waffle Shop: It's Not Toast Yet

My favorite Waffle Shop, the one with the glorious neon sign on Park Road NW, is gone, a victim of the big-boxing of Columbia Heights. But Washington's last remaining Waffle Shop, on 10th Street downtown, across from Ford's Theater, is on life support, and it remains entirely unclear whether master developer Doug Jemal will eliminate this wonderful vestige of mid-century Americana, have the shop moved to another location, or fold it into his plans for a big office building. (Cool video of the shop's exterior and interior here.)

D.C. preservationists want the shop, which features a classic 1950s counter inside as well as one of the best storefront signs in the city, to be kept as is, where it is. Jemal has made noises about perhaps moving the shop to another location, which is better than seeing it razed, but still not as splendid as it would be to leave it where it is and incorporate it into whatever big blocky office building goes on the larger site.

With Yenching Palace about to vanish from Cleveland Park, the city is on the verge of losing one of the few iconic retail signs left in town. The Waffle Shop sign is, as local preservationists say in their nomination for the building to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, "downtown Washington's sole intact Art Moderne restaurant exterior, utilizing elements of streamline design and featuring such characteristic materials as large plate glass panels, polished aluminum, and mosaic tile."

Inside, the serpentine counter is a reminder of a day when Americans ate breakfast and lunch together with strangers, when random bits of conversation took place across a counter--something that has been largely relegated to virtual communities these days. The Vietnamese owner of the downtown Waffle Shop has turned the place into a mostly Chinese eatery, though you can still get a basic American breakfast there (truth be told, however, it's not a very good one. Do go for the milkshakes, though--they are the real thing, made with a grand old Hamilton Beach blender.)

Built in 1950, the Waffle Shop is the last of what were once six links in the local chain. (The preservation nomination for the Waffle Shop includes a very cool history of chain restaurants in Washington, which I've pasted after the jump of this item. Headlines from the history: Washington was home to three Nedick's, six White Towers, 16 Little Taverns, four Toddle Houses, four Hubbard Houses, five Hot Shoppes, and five Blue Bell restaurants. Not a single one of those establishments survives today. The last Little Tavern building in Georgetown looked like this; the site is now more like this.)

Jemal has a fascinating history of preserving buildings in the District, including extraordinary efforts to save the Sixth and I streets Synagogue and the Avalon Theater in Chevy Chase. Of course, his various developments have also replaced other buildings that preservationists considered historic. Which way will he go on this one? Hardly anyone would even ask that the Waffle House be preserved precisely as is, but it's not too much to ask that Jemal incorporate the building into the larger structure he's planning.

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(From nomination of Waffle House for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.)

Washington's Postwar Chain Restaurants

Chain restaurants were well-established in Washington by the 1930s, and were found in most areas of the city by the postwar era. Although they still were greatly outnumbered by single-location restaurants, chain restaurants were starting their climb to industry dominance in the years following World War II. The 1948 District of Columbia Directory lists dozens of units representing major restaurant chains. Illustrations 6 and 7 show items that promoted the brand identity of some of Washington's chain restaurants.

The John R. Thompson Company chain of lunchrooms started at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, and by the 1920s included over 100 restaurants in major cities. Thompson lunchrooms, which tended to occupy storefronts in commercial buildings, were famous for their "one-arm chairs" which resembled elementary school desks and eliminated the need for dining tables. In 1948, Washington had four Thompson Company restaurants, all in the downtown shopping district. Nedick's was a New York-based chain of lunch counters which featured hot dogs and orange drink. In 1948, Washington had three Nedick's, all in the downtown district. None of these lunch counter restaurants survive today.

White Tower Systems began in Milwaukee in 1926, and by 1948 had more than 250 restaurants nationally. White Tower restaurants were stand-alone porcelain enamel structures hallmarked by the eponymous tower. White Tower restaurants originally mimicked the castellated buildings of the better-established White Castle chain but their design became more stylized and art deco-influenced after a 1930 trademark infringement case. White Tower originally specialized in hamburgers but later moved to a full menu including ice cream. Washington had six White Tower restaurants in 1948, four of which were in the downtown district. No White Tower restaurants survive in Washington, DC.

Little Tavern Restaurants was a Louisville chain which came to Washington in the late 1920s. Like White Tower, Little Tavern restaurants were distinctive stand-alone porcelain enamel buildings which resembled miniature rustic inns under faux thatched roofs of green metallic tile. Little Taverns specialized in hamburgers. In 1948, there were sixteen Little Tavern Restaurants in Washington, five of which were in the downtown area. Today there are no Little Taverns in business in Washington, DC and none of the downtown Little Tavern buildings still stands. Only one former Little Tavern unit that was in business during 1948-1954 has a substantially intact exterior. Standing in the Georgetown Historic District, it is no longer a restaurant and appears to have a modified interior.

Toddle House, which started in Houston in the 1920s, came to feature a steak and eggs menu. Toddle House aspired to a more upscale clientele than its competitors and built restaurants in cottage-style brick or clapboard buildings whose hallmark was an oversized chimney at each end. In 1948, there were four Toddle Houses in Washington, three of which were in outlying areas of the city. Although the downtown Toddle House has been demolished, three former Toddle House structures survive. Stripped of most exterior detailing, the Calvert Street NW unit has been used for as a storage building for decades. Two other buildings, which have been heavily altered, house an independent restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue NW and a carryout on Georgia Avenues NW. None of the surviving Toddle Houses retains the chain's trademark blue faux tile roof or maintains its brand identity.

Washington also had its own home-grown chains. The Hubbard House featured cafeteria-style service, an arrangement which required more floor space then a table or counter service restaurant. In 1948, there were four Hubbard House restaurants, three in outlying areas of the city, none of which survive.

The first Hot Shoppes restaurant opened in a storefront at 1404 Park Road NW in 1927. The original Hot Shoppes were free-standing drive-in restaurants, although the chain opened several cafeterias after World War II. In 1948, there were five Hot Shoppes in the District, all on arterial streets outside the downtown shopping area. None of these Hot Shoppes restaurants survive today.

After Hot Shoppes, Washington's largest restaurant chain in 1948 was the Blue Bell System. Blue Bell Restaurants had begun operating in the District in the early 1930s. By 1936, the Blue Bell System had restaurants at 1500 Benning and 2335 Bladensburg Roads NE, arterial streets leading to Prince Georges County, at 4416 Connecticut Avenue NW, near the intersection of Yuma Street, and 502 Ninth Street NW, in the downtown shopping district. Today only the Bladensburg Road building stands, shorn of all identifying architectural detail and providing no visual reminders of its former identity.

In September, 1948, when Washington Post reported that Blue Bell Systems planned to build a "waffle restaurant", there were five Blue Bell restaurants operating in the District, three of which were in the downtown area. . Today, none of these buildings survive

By Marc Fisher |  July 10, 2007; 7:30 AM ET
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Isn't there a Waffle Shop in Alexandria too? Is it not from the same original chain?

Posted by: Arlandria | July 10, 2007 9:14 AM

Oh come ON! That Waffle Shop on Park road was no one's favorite except possibly to drive by. I ate their twice, once got food poisoning and didn't "get it" and the second time I was harassed by a patron who wanted to tell me he lived in the neighborhood for 15 years and that trumped the 7 years I lived in the neighborhood and became increasingly hostile while the staff thought nothing of it. I got sick a second time. I later spoke to a friend who lived on Park Rd who had the same experience. I would love to save the Waffle Shop facade- and I mean that, I really would, but the restaurant was a health hazard and always looked unclean, imho.

Posted by: DCer | July 10, 2007 9:35 AM

Also, can I get some love for the Spandrellite around here? Vitrolite (I thought the Yenching Palace was Vitrolite and not Carrera) was only used in downtown and by the 1970s the Lansburgh and 14th st shops were no more. but the Spandrel glass stayed on and on in the suburbs. Let's kick some Spandrel Glass heritage, ok?

Posted by: DCer | July 10, 2007 9:49 AM

Saving a rubbish restaurant isn't the point DCer. Every time one of these developers closes a landmark our city loses more of its character. By continually letting it happen we risk turning our town into bland boring....Orlando. It's civic planning by numbers and changing DC for the worse.

Posted by: DC Homer | July 10, 2007 10:02 AM

It is a classic of American architecture and egalitarianism. Cops, construction workers and hipsters, people of all races and conditions belly up to the Waffle Shop counter.

The 1968 rioters held its windows and employees sacrosanct. So does Blake Gopnik.

Like many of its age, it could use a bit of smartening up and a bit of menu guidance. That's no reason to disembowel it and sell signs and fixtures to trendy new clubs and eateries which will close in a year.

Posted by: Mike Licht | July 10, 2007 10:27 AM

"D.C. preservationists want the shop ... to be kept as is."

Can they at least clean out the grease trap?

Posted by: Tom T. | July 10, 2007 10:28 AM

We had a Waffle Shop around here? I've never heard of that place until now. Oh well, no love lost for me. If I want waffles, I go to my kitchen and make them.

Posted by: YourStrawberry23 | July 10, 2007 10:37 AM

When I went to work downtown a few years ago, I was astounded to find the Waffle House on 10th Street. What a deal! I loved eating at Waffle Houses and was so surprised to find one since most of them are not this far north. If a person wants elegant ambience, then I would recommend eating someplace else. If you want down to earth food, go to Waffle House. I sure hope this landmark stays.

Posted by: mbrumble | July 10, 2007 10:56 AM

are they connected? Waffle House is all over the south. I thought the Waffle Shop was a local thing.

Posted by: Waffle Shop or Waffle House? | July 10, 2007 11:07 AM

Yenching is already closed.
What about A.V. Ristorante?

Posted by: Diane | July 10, 2007 11:11 AM

A.V. is set to close sometime this year (I think at the end of the summer maybe). If the shop does close, it would be great if someone could buy the sign and reuse it the way they did with the Comet Liquors sign.

BTW, although I don't have much good to say about Indiana, when I lived there a while back, there was a great theatre that had been renovated and it had an old diner attached to it which had also been renovated. It was a really fun place to go on the weekends. The theatre was used for swing/rock-abilly shows and there was also a thrift store too and duckpin bowling!

Posted by: Adams Morgan | July 10, 2007 11:35 AM

Waffle House and Waffle Shop are not the same, just as Bill Pulman and Bill Paxton are not the same person! I also seem to remember the sign reading Waffle Shoppe, but I may be mistaken. I know it was featured in a Zippy the Pinhead strip, as well as Barrel House. I am also a fan of North's Office Machines, although it is not an eatery. Is that building still around?

Posted by: Dancing about Architecture | July 10, 2007 11:46 AM

"you can still get a basic American breakfast there (truth be told, however, it's not a very good one."

NONSENSE. I had the steak-and-eggs with homefries there a few weeks ago and it was dandy. And you can't beat the ambience, especially considering that there are tons of tourists right outside but none dare to eat there, thankfully.


Posted by: Pedro | July 10, 2007 12:07 PM

Smash Douglas Jemal and his economic empire of bribery, conspiracy, purging of small businesses, and the bringing of Wal Mart to DC! Power to the people! No more Paris Hilton tax breaks! Take photos in Silver Spring! Jack Johnson can't indict a ham sandwich with Montana license plates if you spotted him the 'M' and the 'O'! Carlyle Group! Yeagh!

Posted by: Crush | July 10, 2007 12:42 PM

I love the waffle shop, and the breakfast is just fine: plain, simple and satisfying.

Regarding A.V. - Saturday, July 28 is the final day. Went there Friday night for white pizza, and the line was already very long. Totally worth the wait though, especially since it will all be gone soon.

Posted by: MCM | July 10, 2007 12:45 PM

OK, so we should tear down MLK Library, the only local design of one of the major architects of the 20th century but we should keep this sad, little misplaced Waffle Shop, which is now a Chinese eatery for historic reasons?

We should make this Waffle Shop the center of a new multi-million dollar commercial development?

Does any of this sound silly?

Posted by: CW | July 10, 2007 1:05 PM

Great point CW. It seems like DC gave up MLK library to the homeless long ago. It smells bad and it seems like every month there is a new broken and boarded up window. It seems like people just use Barnes and Noble and Borders instead. The only hope for Mies van der Rohe's building is if it is sold off and converted into a trendy contemporary art museum or something. Why can't these hedgefund types do something like that instead of paying tens of millions of dollars for a painting by a 40 year old artist?

Posted by: Dancing about Architecture | July 10, 2007 1:19 PM

What's saddest is that people in this area hold places of commerce--profit making enterprises--with dubious cultural contributions, often poorly run, as "landmarks". Yet we are surrounded by the history of modern civilization, places associated with great contributions to arts and knowledge.

The depraved obsessionwith pop culture can never compensate for lack of style.

Posted by: joe | July 10, 2007 1:23 PM

Does any of this sound silly?

Your post, misunderstanding the importance of folk architecture, is mighty silly. the idea that only the elites of a particular field hodl the value in that field was shot down by Bob Dylan and the folkies 30 years ago. Peddle that "important architecture" story to 1961, they'll listen, I won't.

Posted by: DCer | July 10, 2007 1:24 PM

The Awful Shop must GO.

Posted by: Mike | July 10, 2007 1:24 PM

DC Homer. I think, in general, we don't disagree here. I am in favor of saving the architecture of the place, but called Marc on what was surely a lie- that the Waffle Shop on Park Rd was "a favorite."

The issue I have, which is complex, is that classic buildings are often best used as tourist traps managed by corporations. The Waffle Shop, as a mom and pop, was a heap. The Silver Diner, phony as ever, kept it's facilities spotless. Perhaps the Mom and Pop couldn't afford to pay someone to clean up overnight and tried to do all the work themselves to save money. Who knows where they failed?

What was funky, fun behavior to me as a teenager- homeless guys singing for change, teenagers rapping on the street corner, is very different when the rap turns to "I smell wet dog" as I walk by with my kids. As if a middle aged man doesn't get the reference.

So in general, while I support Mom and Pops in theory, in practice I can only support those that give superior service, such as Hellers Bakery a few blocks away on Mt Pleasant St. Until we can force the owners of landmark architecture to only rent to people who care, instead of the highest bidder, then we won't have what we want or need. and that probably is unlegal.

Posted by: DCer | July 10, 2007 1:41 PM

I'm all for keeping the facade, but come on, people - you can't seriously get all weepy over the demise of bad restaurants.

Posted by: BLE | July 10, 2007 1:45 PM

The 10th Street waffle shop is excellent, for what it is. (I've never been to the Park Rd location.) The waffles are cheap, as is the bacon, etc. It's terrible for you and greasy, but tasty. "Hardly anyone" would want to preserve it the way it is? I would. DC gets lamer and tamer by the year, especially that part of town. No one is against development, but why does that have to mean a total obliteration of everything that was around before, and why does it have to lead to boring, suburban-style chain retail and luxury-only establishments? (Hello, Chinatown.)

Posted by: John | July 11, 2007 9:33 AM

I used to love going to the Waffle Shop on Wisconsin Avenue for lunch while attending Wilson HS. (I think it's now a pizza joint.) That was so much cooler than eating in the cafeteria. The counter clerks were all heavily tattooed, I realize now they were probably Vets of some war. And boy did we think we were sooo much better than the suburbs! The first MacDonalds was in Bethesda, across from BCC High School. The Toddle House was where the Steak and Egg Kitchen is now on Wisconsin. There was also a Waffle Shop in Alexandria, but its awning said "Wafle Shoppe" IIRC.

Posted by: Dianne in DC | July 11, 2007 11:40 AM

Re the last post about the Wisconsin Avenue Waffle Shop: I too ate there pretty regularly when a student at AU and later on. But I think most of the counter guys were not military veterans, but ex-cons. Short order cook used to be a classic ex-con gig, and given how fast the crew at "The Waff," as we called it,turned over, I imagine not a few of them went back inside.

Posted by: Jack | July 12, 2007 9:46 AM

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