In the heart of hyper-partisanship, a diner in Tenleytown takes it all down a notch
“You want something to eat, motherfucker? You want something to eat?” the man in a Cleveland Cavaliers hat slurred into a cell phone as he walked into Osmand and Joe’s Steak ‘n Egg Kitchen, a 24-hour restaurant in the Tenleytown neighborhood of Washington, DC, on a Saturday morning in mid-June. “I’m about to get something to eat,” he added into the phone. Steak and eggs, huge pancakes and waffles, patty melts, big burgers with fried eggs, funnel cake, melted-ice-cream-thick shakes, hash browns, fries. Add gravy to whatever. Biscuits.
Early-to-bed and early-to-rise Washington, DC is a place where late-night eats are hard to come by. After bars close only a few spots in the city draw a wide cast of characters to their doors. Places like Osmand and Joe’s Steak ‘n Egg Kitchen—better known as just “Steak ‘n Egg”—thrive because they are rare, and because they provide a haven for revelers after bars close, at 2 a.m. most nights. The customers are college or high school students, clubgoers, and anybody on an erratic sleep or eating schedule. It’s also a go-to spot for members of the DC music scene and their enthusiasts, where audiences would come after a show by Fugazi or Bad Brains.
Steak ‘n Egg attracts Washingtonians who would otherwise not interact. In a broad sense, Steak ‘n Egg brings together white and black Washingtonians. But it’s also a place where political creatures congregate, in search of omelets or pancakes or whatever’s on the menu. In other settings, they might do so under strained circumstances. They are the Capital City’s Democratic and Republican operators.
This is a general election year, and it’s a tough one. Vicious threats of violence and all-out brawls, are commonplace on- and offline, from politicians and the voters they vie for. DC is at the epicenter of it all, and there are few places of refuge for those that disagree. Steak ‘n Egg is one of them.
When I arrived there around midnight, I went around asking people what Steak ‘n Egg meant to them. Jackson Darr, 29, was eating with his friend. They’re both conservative political consultants. I asked him what was special about the restaurant. To Darr, the Steak ‘n Egg was a relief.
“It’s an island of Americana in a sea of reconstituted nice houses, nice neighborhood. It’s like an island of greasiness in a sea of well-kempt niceness,” Darr said.
“Greasy food is a big deal with me. Any type of super-greasy burger. The thing that I really love is the way they do the chocolate chip pancakes. I’ve never seen anybody do it better. You would think that DC would have shut it down for some ridiculous reasons or other. I’m sure they’d find some health-code violation because it’s in too bougie of a neighborhood,” Darr added. To him, the island of grease “builds community. Even if people don’t talk to each other, they see each other,” he said.
“It’s a community institution,” he said. “Where else in a sleepy neighborhood like this can you be out all night, have all types of people, all races, all classes, from the clubbing set to the bar set to the right wingers like us. I’ve seen rappers here. I’ve seen ambassadors here. The ambassador to Spain was here.”
And in DC, where the default political setting of the city is liberal—the city regularly goes 95 percent or more to Democratic presidential candidates—it’s also a place where those with different political viewpoints can mingle over eggs without partisanship getting in the way. Unlike bars, where booze chased by politics can breed bad vibes, Steak ‘n Egg is a calm place for political discussion, and it always has been. There is a God Bless America poster in the window that has been here since 9/11. There is also a mural of Barack Obama that's been here since 2008.
No diner this old in Washington, DC, has failed to hear a passionate debate, but here they seem spirited, good-natured. I’ve had them myself. It’s part of the menu. Even in liberal-heavy DC, conservative consultants can enjoy a feel without feeling hassled. “You feel outnumbered, but not uncomfortable at all,” said Darr’s friend, Jordan Horyn, who was sporting a Reagan/Bush ’84 T-shirt.
The next table over were a few Steak ‘n Egg first-timers. Kelly, who works for a Democratic presidential campaign, and some of her friends. “I support Hillary, not Bernie,” Kelly told me.
I tried to divert the subject away from politics: “We’ll all be destroyed by climate change anyway. Doesn't really matter too much." It didn't work. But that was cool. It was a friendly and interesting discussion. As much as one would like to avoid it in DC, it's bound to happen. But I've never seen anybody get hurt over a political discussion here.
I spoke to Mike Neal, 48, who has been coming here for the last twenty years, as he got breakfast for himself and his coworkers on Saturday morning. He stressed the camaraderie available here as one thing that has kept him coming back since his youth: "Back when I didn't have to punch a clock."
Now he's an engineer at Dumbarton Oaks, a museum in Georgetown just a few miles down Wisconsin Ave.
“What is there not to like about this place?” said Neal. “It brings you closer to who we are as people. No matter how much we try to divide ourselves we all are people you know what I’m saying... even though we want to see ourselves as so different from the next person,” he said, adding, “Everybody wants to be different yet we’re all the same.”
“The food, it’s cooking from the heart. It’s comfortable. You get to eat outside. It’s just like coming to the barbershop,” said Neal. “You just to be there and talk to good people.”
As a teenager, I would sneak out of the house and walk the half-mile there to drink coffee, wear black and slurp down Camel lights. That was back before the DC smoking ban. A combination of Adderall, coffee, books, and newspapers kept me there, chit-chatting with whomever would listen about the looming Iraq War or the Patriot Act or Radiohead’s new album. Or war with Iran. Was I going to get drafted? I remember hoping not. Steak ‘n Egg was there the whole time, through each crisis. It's outlived whole political movements, right and left, but its walls have heard all of them. The pancakes have remained good throughout.