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 washingtonpost.com 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
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