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All in the family
Neighborhood landmarks have been serving food to residents for decades
(Published August 24, 1998)
By OSCAR ABEYTA
Do you remember before cholesterol levels were measured, before fat grams were counted, before people ever heard of trans-fatty acids? Do you recall eating at restaurants because the food was good and filling and affordable and usually smothered in gravy? For those who long for the days of simple home cooking and the guilt-free culinary indulgences of yesteryear, your selection of restaurants seems to be diminishing. Where can you get old-fashioned eats amongst the growing number of all-natural, fat-free, organically grown offerings out there? Fear not, there are still restaurants in the District that cater to folks who remember how food used to taste.
Walking into Sherrill’s Restaurant and Bakery on Capitol Hill is like stepping into a sepia-toned photograph of a 1940s diner.
The ocher Formica on the countertop matches the sienna stools, which match the walnut booths, which blend perfectly with the age-browned paintings on the walls.
The brightest spots in Sherrill’s are the immaculately polished chrome fixtures behind the counter. An original Hamilton-Beach milkshake mixer sits behind the counter, which is outfitted with a sparkling gooseneck soda fountain. Fresh-baked muffins, doughnuts and cakes sit proudly in the ancient display case.
Oh, yeah — and there’s the Emmy award behind the cash register.
The eatery was the subject of a 30-minute documentary called "Fine Food, Fine Pastry, Open 6 to 9," which won an Emmy in 1990 and also was nominated for an Academy Award. Another prized possession sits next to the Emmy statuette: a photo album of when the family made the trip to Hollywood to attend the awards ceremony, complete with snapshots of actors and actresses they spotted there.
Sherrill’s has been serving breakfast, lunch and dinner at 223 Pennsylvania Ave. SE since the early 1930s, in what used to be a Hahn’s shoe store. Samuel and Lola Revas bought the restaurant and bakery in 1941 and the couple’s daughters, Dotty Bolito and Kathyleen Milton, currently run it.
"A lot of our regular customers are dead," Bolito said. A petite and spry woman in her 60s, Bolito has been working at Sherrill’s for more than 40 years. She said the heyday of Sherrill’s ended in 1981 during the recession.
Its location near the heart of the federal government has attracted politicians and celebrities for decades, Bolito said. From activist and Congressman Tom Hayden to actors like Mike Farrell and Billy Dee Williams, Sherrill’s has seen its share of notables pass through its doors. Most recently, astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin was seen lunching with a congressman one afternoon last month.
Bolito admits that Sher-rill’s is not exactly famous for its four-star service. The waitresses there are older women and the overall effect is of being served lunch by your aunt who, against her will, got wrangled into taking care of you for a month while your parents went on a cruise. But people will put up with crabby service if the food is good enough and cheap enough.
The food at Sherrill’s is still made the way it should be. Crab cakes are a specialty there, and the turkey is roasted fresh each day, according to Bolito. And where else could you get Steamship round of beef on a kaiser roll…with lunches around $4 and no dinner item over $8?
Trio Restaurant at 1537 17th St. NW was nearly called Pete’s Restaurant. When Peter Malios bought the place in 1950, he wanted to name it after himself. But his wife objected to changing the original name, rationalizing that since the couple had three children, it should stay named Trio. And so it’s been for almost 50 years.
"We give the people what they want," Malios said when asked about the longevity of his restaurant. "It’s not gourmet, it’s casual. It’s a neighborhood place."
Before the Malios family owned the restaurant, it was a thriving luncheonette, popular with young workers who lived in this residential neighborhood just east of Dupont Circle.
"Back in the ‘50s, the neighborhood was all rooming houses," said George Malios, the present owner. "No one had kitchens."
Over the years Trio’s – as it is popularly known — has thrived due to its corner location, surrounded by houses and apartment buildings. And as the Dupont East neighborhood has grown, so has Trio’s.
Malios recalled when he was discharged from the military in 1960 he began running the restaurant with his brother-in-law. In 1967, they bought Gem Cleaners next door on 17th Street and turned it into the Fox and Hounds Lounge. In 1973 they bought Copley Plaza Restaurant, which was next door on Q Street, and it became Trio Pizza. According to Malios, it was one of the first pizza parlors in the city.
"Of course, everybody serves pizza now," he said with a grin.
Trio’s was also one of the first restaurants in the District to feature sidewalk seating, something that was illegal in the District until 1961.
Trio’s also played a small part in civil rights history as the place where Stokely Charmichael and the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. mended their political rift. A picture of that event used to grace the wall of Trio’s but was removed during one of the restaurant’s remodelings, Malios said.
The Fox and Hounds shares Trio’s kitchen and is in itself a neighborhood institution. Despite its spartan decor, which is cleverly disguised by its nearly non-existent lighting, the bar has been a favorite in the neighborhood for its 25 years. Its appeal lies partly in the fact that the regulars it has attracted over the years keep showing up and contribute to the diversity if its customers.
Malios said both the restaurant and the bar are frequently recommended by hotels in the District to visitors searching for a real "neighborhood joint" to try.
Trio’s menu still features the type of food that made it popular in the first place, from meatloaf and turkey dinners to pork chops and spaghetti. But you also can get filet mignon or pasta with mussels or, occasionally, Cornish game hen if you want.
"We buy the good stuff and we don’t charge too much," he said. "That seems to do the trick." Malios also credits his loyal staff of cooks, waiters and bartenders for helping keep Trio’s in business.
Trio’s recently repaired and re-hung its signature pizza/submarines flashing red and green neon sign. Malios said neighbors came up to him after he got the sign flashing again and thanked him for restoring it — because Trio’s wouldn’t be the same without its sense of history.
Ben’s Chili Bowl at 1213 U St. NW has seen some of the brightest times in the District and has survived periods of Washington’s history most people would rather forget.
Ben’s, as it is popularly called, was opened 40 years ago in what used to be a silent movie house called the Minnehaha. Its architecture, which today looks quaint and retro, was back then sleek and modern. It was the first storefront on U Street to have an all-glass front, which showed off its chrome-and-Formica counter and chrome stools.
Started by Ben and Virginia Ali, Ben’s claims to be the first to take the half smoke sausage off the breakfast table, put it on a bun and smother it with chili and onions, creating what is arguably the District’s only indigenous food. While Philadelphia has its cheesesteak, Boston has its chowder and Chicago has its Italian beef, Washington has its chili smoke.
The eatery’s location, next door to the Lincoln Theater, made it a favorite among performers of Washington’s "Black Broadway," including legends like Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, Miles Davis and Nat King Cole.
Ben’s also was a favorite hangout of actor Bill Cosby, who courted his wife Camille there while stationed with the Navy in Bethesda. Family legend has it that he would sneak off the base to have chili smokes at Ben’s, but his superiors would always catch him because they could smell the chili and onions on his breath. Cosby still makes a point of ordering chili smokes to his hotel room whenever he comes to town, according to the folks at the Bowl.
The 1968 riots following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination devastated U Street. Stokely Charmichael, a regular whose office for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Council was across the street from the restaurant, got special police permission for Ben’s to remain open past the curfew as a place police, firemen and SNCC workers could go to get some relief and to organize peace-keeping efforts.
The years that followed saw U Street sink into disrepair, as drug dealers and violence moved into the neighborhood. But Ben’s hung on, its only concession to the times being its decision to stop serving sweets to discourage drug addicts from frequenting the restaurant.
When the city’s Franklin Reeves Center opened at 14th and U streets, business began to pick up at Ben’s. And when Cosby held a nationally televised press conference there, things really began hopping. Then construction of Metro’s Green Line station began across the street in 1987, and for the next five years business at the Bowl was at a standstill. But through it all, Ben’s has managed to keep serving its chili smokes, chili dogs and chili burgers, the favorites that have kept the place going for 40 years.
"We have a great core of loyal people here," said Nezim Ali, part of the second generation of family members who run the Bowl.
Those loyals, along with a slew of local celebrities and politicians, helped Ben’s celebrate its 40th anniversary on Aug. 21 and look forward to 40 more years of good eating there.
Copyright 1998, The Common Denominator