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Waffle Shop--Building Preserved, Waffles Not (Yet)

The Waffle Shop, the classic 1950s breakfast spot on 10th Street NW across from Ford's Theater, served its last waffles (and its last Chinese lunches) last September, but in the battle over just how historic the eatery really is, the District's historic preservation board has now concluded that both the exterior and interior of the place must be spared from demolition.

At the request of a coaltion of D.C. preservation groups, the city review board decided last week to declare the Waffle Shop a landmark. What good does this do now that the restaurant is no more? Well, it may mean that the diner will one day reopen, somewhere, most likely not at its current location.

D.C. developer Doug Jemal, who owns a hefty chunk of the block where the Waffle Shop is located, plans a big office complex there and had originally proposed to raze the much-loved eatery. After considerable howling on the part of customers, staff and preservationists, Jemal cut a deal with preservation activists under which he would pay to dismantle the shop and rebuild it as part of a project he is planning for his property near the District's convention center, at which point it would become, in Jemal's immortal words, "a waffle shop."

Ever since, preservationists have fought to have the city puts its stamp of landmark status on the building as a way to ensure that the developer sticks to his word. The preservationists split over Jemal's plan to move the Waffle Shop to another location, with most of the groups grudgingly going along, while the Recent Past Preservation Network declined to embrace that idea. "While the other organizations agree that this is not the preferred solution - saving a building in situ is always preferable - they believe that the agreement is the best available option to preserve the shop's interior and exterior," wrote preservationist Sally Berk.

The D.C. preservation office concluded that the Waffle House is worthy of landmarking. Citing the serpentine counters and terrazzo floor as distinctive elements, city preservation officer Tim Dennee wrote that the diner "is significant as an extant, early example of a chain restaurant designed in a distinctive Moderne mode characteristic of diners of the era and particularly of the restaurant's fellow Blue Bell chain locations in this area."

"The whole is quite evocative of its era and even iconic," he wrote. "The Waffle Shop is important both for being unique as a type of purpose-built, small service building within an ever changing and growing downtown, and for trumpeting that uniqueness through its design. In short, it is a fine, period diner shoehorned into a narrow urban lot, the lone survivor of its type downtown."

Now what happens?

Well, there is some decent news on the food front, in that the folks who ran the Waffle House have moved much of their menu and have even built a slightly Waffle-ish counter at the Lincoln House eatery on the same block. And Jemal's company has promised activists that they will rebuild the Waffle House within five years, most likely at a Jemal property at New York Avenue and Sixth streets NW.

The city's decision doesn't doesn't do anything to help bring the Waffle Shop back into existence as a place where you could actually eat a waffle. But the deal between the developer and the preservationists does commit Jemal to "operate the shop as a restaurant even if it should require the developer to subsidize the operation; or, if a restaurant proves infeasible, to lease to a retail establishment in order to insure public access."

Still, as Berk notes, if Jemal doesn't go ahead with his convention center project, the Waffle Shop could remain locked up in boxes in some warehouse for a long time, or even forever: The deal includes "no money to buy land on which to reconstruct the shop should the economy go south and no one be able to complete the project," Berk tells me.

It would be a shame to see the building preserved without the business returning to life. But downtown could sure use a decent breakfast place that doesn't involve white tablecloths and the forking over of a credit card.

By Marc Fisher |  April 4, 2008; 8:21 AM ET
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Comments

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There's still Ollie's Trolley. They do breakfast and it's pretty cheap. Clearly it used to be more of a counter-and-stool diner, like the Waffle Shop, at one point. I believe that was before it was even Ollie's, since Ollie's used to be in a trailer at the corner of 13th and F. It would be nice if Ollie's converted the counter back over to a sit-down counter, rather than a prep area.

Posted by: Reid | April 4, 2008 10:31 AM

Wow, I had no idea it was closed. I used to eat breakfast there all the time when I was working at metro center, and I had a waistline to prove it. Ahhh...there is no love for greasy spoons anymore. For shame. I loved that place.

Posted by: Gabe | April 4, 2008 10:48 AM

Unbelievable. You people would preserve an outhouse if it had been sitting in one place long enough.

Why don't we try something new with our time and money, like educate our children?

Posted by: DC Voter | April 4, 2008 12:08 PM

Perhaps that's because DC already budgets more money per student than any other school jurisdiction in the country. When will people start to understand that it's not necessarily more funding that these kids need (more funding is always great, but...) - it's that the funding needs to get directly into the schools and students. Throwing more money at the schools is great - but fix the damn structure first and get the money to the kids.

... and this town needs a little preservation - it's becoming the District of Disney and losing it's flavor.

Posted by: DC Voter II | April 4, 2008 12:21 PM

I sure could go for a jumbo and a side...
ninety-seven!

And make that a cherry coke!

I miss the Waff (but my waistline doesn't and neither does my doctor).

I agree with the preservationists on this one, but you never hear them fighting the astronomical taxes and onerous regulations that have made the survival of small businesses in this city an uphill battle.

We need cheap, unhealthy greasy spoon restaurants every bit as much as we need the buildings that housed them.

Posted by: Save the Waff! | April 4, 2008 1:38 PM

Perhaps the District should also seek to declare all of the well-known brothels (advertised in the Sports Section of the daily paper) as historic landmarks too. It is only fair...

Posted by: Aaron Burr | April 4, 2008 3:07 PM

"both the exterior and interior of the place must be spared from demolition."

Eeyucchhh. Can they at least clean the grease trap?

Posted by: Tom T. | April 4, 2008 5:35 PM

Yawn.

Posted by: BDTLR, VA | April 5, 2008 9:07 AM

You know, things are rarely missed until gone. Examples of things over which there is no arguement would be Union Station and the Old Post Office...OH WAIT, we did fight for those...

I mean, what about the Old Stone House in Georgetowm? Clearly we could benefit from another Starbucks...Or mills in rock creek, there were nearly a dozen and now only one.

The past is something to be preserved as an honour to those who built, lived and died in this city. What if this was THE LAST greasy spoon in the country? My guess is there would be little debate.

Posted by: Morgan | April 5, 2008 11:53 AM

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