STerling 8298

"My Own Late Night Choice...

...was the DC Diner, which squatted in a parking lot near Vermont & L NW. The silver diner had a conventional counter filling about two thirds of its length, with a little paneled nook at one end just large enough for several tables and a display of race track photos. Into the DC Diner came cops, drunks, prostitutes and college students returning from dates or, on early Sunday mornings, from the midnight mass the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception thoughtfully provided the Catholic young and restless.

My routine was to order the steak and egg breakfast. A beefy cook would grab a couple of eggs and burst them on the grill. The steak followed. He then reached over for a handful of home fries from the foot-high pile that sat nearly cooked in a cool corner of the stove. Almost simultaneously the chef lunged for a fistful of salad from a five gallon potato chip can resting under the counter and plopped it into a side dish. During the whole procedure no kitchen utensil touched his hands, yet few meals have tasted as good."

-Sam Smith, Multitudes (by kind permission of the author)

See the Links Section below for information on Sam Smith's engaging on-line Washington memoir and provocative commentaries.

"Specials Every Day"

When Calvin Coolidge famously remarked that "the business of America is Business" in 1925, many elegant Victorian houses around Mc Pherson Square and Thomas Circle were already giving way to commercial development.

By the fall of 1930 it was clear that the economy had hit something deeper than a pothole, but the boom years were still as recent as last season's football scores. Perhaps lingering hope that prosperity might be just around the corner led a purchaser to demolish the pair of brick houses at Vermont Avenue and L Street. However, the depression dampened speculation of any kind, and the L-shaped corner plot remained a parking lot for 3 years.

1933 was a particularly inauspicious year to launch a business, but the DeeCee Diner beat the odds. The diversity of the "Thomas Circle South" neighborhood was particularly suited to round-the-clock trade.


Since 1880, the octagonal turret of the Portland Flats, Washington's first luxury apartment house, had dominated the south side of the Circle. A dozen other "named" apartment houses and such leading commercial hotels as the Hamilton and Ambassador lined neighboring streets.

Henry Wardman's 1916 Burlington Hotel faced the Portland Flat's ornate iron portico across Vermont Avenue. Between the Burlington and the diner's door was the five story Hill and Tebbetts Ford showroom and service center, where cars were hoisted between floors in an industrial elevator.

Between Thomas Circle and McPherson Square were a dozen large office buildings, some devoted to medical and dental practices, others housing insurance brokers, patent attorneys, and real estate brokers. Washington's high rises of the time, their names evoke dimly lit halls, varnished dark oak mouldings, and frosted glass doors with firms' names lettered in gilt.


Besides innumerable "businessman's lunches", the DeeCee Diner must have served many an early morning cup of coffee to revellers homeward bound from the nightclubs like Merryland Club or the Robin Hood Room that clustered near the corner of 14th and K streets.

But in the end, just one generation of Washingtonians grew up calling ST-8298 for an egg salad on rye with black coffee to go. During the fifties, the neighbood gradually lost fashion as a residential and business address. The diner barely survived the Portland Flats, which, after being converted to office space in 1940, was replaced by a building with street-level retail in 1962. By then, the hotels and office buildings were beginning to share a seedy cachet.

By the mid-1970s, K Street near Vermont Avenue and adjoining blocks had become nightly parade routes for flamboyantly-undressed hookers screaching invitations at passing drivers. Even after the McPherson Square Metro station opened in 1977, it took years for the neighborhood to recover respectability and redevelop as modern office space. By the early 1990s, almost all the pre-war office buildings, the Burlington Hotel, and Scholl's Cafeteria Building were gone. Today the footprint of the DeeCee Diner is covered by the "1100 Vermont Avenue" office building.


 "1100 Vermont Avenue" on December 6, 2003. Like the current office building, the Dee Cee Diner had a longer frontage on L Street NW but an entrance on Vermont Avenue.


Sam Smith is a Washington original --one man who is not afraid to say what's on his mind no matter what the day's fashion. Click here to visit his DC Progressive Review page and read his provocative essays, or here for Multitudes, his intimately-detailed memoir of growing up personally and politically in DC.

Discussion of classic Washington apartment houses begins and ends with James M. Goode's Best Addresses (1988). Among many other accomplishments, Mr. Goode is the master detective who discovered the two known photographs of the Portland Flats. His Capital Losses (reissued 2003) has vintage photographs of several Thomas Circle-McPherson Square area Victorian mansions which perished in the 1925-1935 period.

Don Thomas' NORVAPICS  site is an image catalog of Washington area sites of the '40s, '50s, and '60s. Click here to see his excellent collection of Northern Virginia Route 1, Maryland, and DC features, including the image of the DeeCee Diner he contributed above.