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What Happened to Our Original Cheap Eats Restaurants?

What Happened to Our Original Cheap Eats Restaurants?
Szechuan Restaurant is now a downtown parking lot. The Cracked Claw, pictured at right, was closed and reopened as Maryland's first off-track betting site—and then closed again. Photo by Mahmoud El-Darwish.

What was “cheap” in 1982? For our first annual Cheap Eats feature, published that May by Robert Shoffner and David Dorsen, we set the bar at $30 for a two-person dinner, including beer or wine, tax, and a 15 percent tip. Go to the right restaurant and you could pay far less. Georgetown Seafood House charged $1.95 for a 30-ounce mug of Miller Lite; the original Hard Times Café, in Alexandria, didn’t charge more than $4 for anything on its menu. (To put things in perspective, we reported that ordering a sandwich and beer “at a popular singles bar” would cost you about $16.)

This year, what’s “cheap” is almost twice as expensive, at $25 a person. More often than not, it’s also in the suburbs: In 1982, 24 of our 39 Cheap Eats restaurants–just over 60 percent of the list–had locations in the District. Now, that number’s dropped to 22 percent.

Not surprisingly, most of these restaurants–whether in DC or in greater Washington–have closed. A few of those closures are indicative of larger changes in the city and region (take a look at Baobab, in Adams Morgan); others were caused by dining experiments gone awry (Bread Oven, La Casita). Many were pioneers in introducing Washingtonians to global cuisines: Ethiopian was still uncommon back then, and West African had just arrived. Our critics were counting their blessings that Afghan food was even available.

Fortunately, five of the restaurants below are still open, if a little pricier than they were in 1982. (One, Duck Chang’s, even made this year’s Cheap Eats list.) Here’s what we said back then, and what’s become of them today.

Addis (702 King St., Alexandria): “For a pleasant foray into an uncommon cuisine, Addis is a fine bet.” The Ethiopian restaurant is now closed, but the cuisine is no longer uncommon in Washington: food critic Todd Kliman named seven area Ethiopian restaurants as “top picks” in his February feature on the cuisine. A Nando’s now occupies Addis’s King Street storefront.

Arabian Nights (2915 Connecticut Ave., NW): “A favorite among Mideast embassy personnel.” Closed. Now Lillies, an Italian-Mediterranean restaurant and bar.

Bamiyan I and II (3320 M St., NW; 300 King St., Alexandria): “One of the few places in the world outside Afghanistan (and maybe Moscow) where you can eat Afghan food.” That’s since changed, as Bamiyan was the first in a “wave of Afghan restaurants” in the area, as the Post put it in 1989. Among its successors: the unrelated Bamian, which opened in Falls Church in 2006 and has made our Cheap Eats list in eight of the last nine years. (Why the difference in spelling? Both are named after the Buddhist religious site in Aghanistan, but the Falls Church restaurant didn’t have enough room on the sign of the steakhouse it replaced. One letter had to go, according to the Post.) Both of Bamiyan’s locations have closed, replaced by a Boffi home-design showroom in Georgetown and a Thai restaurant, Sang Jun, in Alexandria.

Baobab (2106 18th St., NW): “When we first reviewed the Baobab, two years ago, we liked this West African restaurant and found only one significant fault: too many red sauces. Happily, that fault has been corrected.” When it opened in 1979, the same year chef Ibrahim Thiero arrived from Mali, Baobab was the only West African restaurant in the city, a trailblazer for African establishments like Kilimanjaro, which opened just a few blocks away in 1982. Baobab would close soon after Cheap Eats was released, as Thiero moved on to open the African Room restaurant and nightclub in Mount Pleasant. It and Baobab have both been replaced by Mexican restaurants: the African Room is now Haydee’s (3102 Mount Pleasant St., NW), while Baobab became Casa Oaxaca, which closed in January due to rising rents.

Bread Oven I and II (1220 19th St., NW; 4849 Massachusetts Ave., NW): “By sticking to the specials and only one glass of wine, a couple can order some of the fine pastries for dessert and still spend no more than our $30 limit.” In 1980 the Post chronicled the rise of owner Christian Domergue’s French restaurant empire, which began with the downtown opening of the first Bread Oven in 1978, followed by a second location in Northwest’s Spring Valley neighborhood. A third opened on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1984, when Domergue attempted to turn the buttoned-up strip into a destination after dark. “I am trying to wake up Pennsylvania Avenue,” he told the Post; the restaurant turned into a cabaret at night. “They tell me this is the Champs-Élysées of Washington. It could be, but now it is not a Champs-Élysées.” But Domergue was too early to the neighborhood, and by the end of the decade his Bread Ovens had closed. A Del Frisco’s Grille and Elephant & Castle now occupy the 1201 Pennsylvania Ave., NW location.

Calvert Café (1967 Calvert St., NW): For our first-ever Best of Washington, in 1979, we named the baba ghanoush at this Adams Morgan institution Best Meal Under $2. The restaurant is still open, renamed Mama Ayesha’s after the passing of its founder in 1994. We revisited the restaurant in 2013. The baba ghanoush is now $8.

China (8411 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring): “China’s pre-arranged banquets, served for a minimum of four at a per-person cost of $8, $9, or $10–the last of which includes Peking duck–may be the best bargains on the Chinese circuit.” Closed. Mandarin, another Chinese restaurant with dishes under $10, now occupies the space.

China Inn (631 H St., NW): Opened in 1939 as one of the earliest restaurants in DC’s second, current Chinatown–the first was demolished to make way for Federal Triangle–the “oldest restaurant in Chinatown” was replaced by Lei Garden in 1997. The building has since been demolished, though a 245-room “micro-hotel,” developed by Monument Realty and Modus Hotels, is slated to be completed at the site in 2016.

Cracked Claw (19815 Frederick Rd., Gaithersburg): “On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays, it’s crabs and more crabs for $9.95; on Thursdays, it’s a crab-and-shrimp feast for $11.95.” Owner John Davis (“Pappy”) Poole sold the restaurant in the late eighties, then opened a second iteration at Urbana’s Peter Pan Inn. The Cracked Claw at Peter Pan became the first off-track betting site in Maryland before closing in 2011.

Duck Chang’s (4427 John Marr Dr., Annandale): Chang’s “introduced Annandale to the glories of Peking duck,” we wrote in 1982. The dish is still excellent, and the restaurant made our Cheap Eats list again this year, where we described Chef Peter Chang’s Peking- and Szechuan-style whole ducks as “crip-skinned and marvelous.”

Fio’s (3636 16th St., NW): “No one leaves Fio’s hungry. Or broke.” Closed.

Floriana (4936 Wisconsin Ave., NW): “One of the best neighborhood Italian restaurants in town.” In 2000, the restaurant moved to its present location in Dupont Circle (1602 17th St., NW). Entrées are now upwards of $20.

Florida Avenue Grill (1100 Florida Ave., NW): “Soul food is good for the soul.” Opened in 1944, the diner claims it’s the oldest soul food restaurant in the world. The biscuits with sausage cream gravy are now $6.50.

Genji (2816 Graham Road, Falls Church): “If there are more cheerful waitresses than those of this spacious Japanese restaurant, we have yet to find them.” Closed. At least two kebab restaurants have also closed at this location.

Georgetown Seafood House (3056 M St., NW): “Occasionally, a banner outside the restaurant announces a midweek special of lobster for $5.95, surely one of the best seafood buys in town.” A Post story released four months before our Cheap Eats guide announced that the restaurant would also be selling 30-ounce mugs of Miller Lite, the equivalent of two-and-a-half bottles, for $1.95. Despite–or perhaps because of–its low prices, the restaurant was born out of bankruptcy, taking over for a failed French restaurant operating under the same owner, Michel Sellier. In 1983 the District ordered Sellier to pay more than $100,000 in back taxes owed from two of his restaurants. The M Street space is now occupied by the “edgy, rock & roll” Thunder Burger & Bar.

Hard Times Café (1404 King St., Alexandria): “With nothing on its menu costing more than $3.95, the Hard Times Café may be the quintessential Cheap Eat.” The Five-Way Chili (chili, spaghetti, beans, onions, and cheese) is now $8.99, and the original Alexandria location anchors a chain of 14 restaurants.

House of Chinese Gourmet (1485 Rockville Pike, Rockville): “One of the biggest, busiest, and best Chinese restaurants here.” Closed.

Hunan Garden (2104 Veirs Mill Rd., Rockville): Closed. A Korean barbecue restaurant, Hwa Gae Jang Tuh, now sits in the same location at Twinbrook Shopping Center.

Imperial Palace (4515 Willard Ave., Chevy Chase): “Exemplary cooking in the Hong Kong tradition.” Closed.

Jade Palace (624 H St., NW): “Beyond the life-size laughing Buddha at its entrance, Jade Palace has no features to distinguish it from other Chinatown restaurants where the dining room has grown seedy and the kitchen cooks Cantonese.” The laughing Buddha is gone; the restaurant is now a SunTrust bank.

Kabul West (4871 Cordell Ave., Bethesda): “Can legitimately claim to be one of the best sources of kabobs in Washington.” Now a California Tortilla.

La Casita of Capitol Hill (723 8th St., SE): “The pit-cooked Texas beef barbecue is excellent and the burritos are the best in town.” Then, in 1989, a strange thing happened to La Casita: it became a dual Thai-Mexican restaurant. Kitt Wichitnak, who was born in Bangkok and had worked at La Casita “for a decade as kitchen staff, cashier, and, finally, manager,” according to the Post, bought the restaurant and renamed it La Casita-Ruan Thai. “If you ask nicely,” the Post reported, you could order both Mexican and Thai “at the same time.” Ruan Thai in Wheaton made this year’s Cheap Eats, and a La Casita pupuseria is in Silver Spring; neither is related. The space is now home to a sports bar, the Ugly Mug, which has nachos and quesadillas but no pad thai.

Madurai (3318 M St., NW): “A happy surprise: It pays to save room for desserts, something at which Asian restaurants rarely excel.” The Georgetown building is now home to Cady’s Alley, a high-end home furnishing store.

Matuba (2915 Columbia Pike, Arlington): Under new owners, this Arlington sushi bar changed its name to Maruko in 2010.

Mr. M’s (1120 Connecticut Ave., NW): “The only difference between the clam chowder and the bean, vegetable, cream-of-mushroom, and matzo-ball soups that are served at Mel Krupin’s and their counterparts at Mr. M’s is that here you have a tile floor instead of a custom-loomed Irish carpet and they are dished out by waitresses that deserve their own situation comedy.” This coffee shop operated out of the same kitchen as Krupin’s deli. Both are closed.

O’Brien’s Pit Barbecue (1314 Gude Dr., Rockville): What we called “the most bodacious barbecue east of Houston” has been reborn under the name Branded ’72, in a nod to O’Brien’s opening year.

Omega (1858 Columbia Rd., NW): “Perhaps the city’s best inexpensive restaurant.” The Adams Morgan Cuban restaurant has since become The Grill From Impanema. In 2008, chef Barton Seaver told the magazine he still had “borderline inappropriate thoughts about [Omega’s] shredded chicken with beans and rice.”

Paradise East (7151 Lee Hwy., Falls Church): “A word of caution: If you’re interested in authentic Korean food, tell your waitress right away.” Closed.

Red Sea (2463 18th St., NW): This Adams Morgan Ethiopian institution is closed, though it stayed open long enough for our chief food critic to ask his future wife on a date.

Siam Inn (11407 Amherst Ave., Wheaton): “Many courses cost only $4, few more than $6.” There must be something in the building: Ruan Thai, one of this year’s Cheap Eats picks, now occupies the location. Thai Town, a Woodley Park branch of Siam Inn, has also closed.

Sign of the Whale (1825 M St., NW): “What subsidizes the Whale’s reasonable menu prices is a thirsty mob that has made it the current hot ticket on the singles-bar circuit; what makes it worth a visit is a well-run kitchen….[A]t night, the bar sharks create a din that is every bit as awesome as the feeding frenzy documented in Blue Water, White Death.” The whale lives, though seafood items like a $6 basket of steamed cherrystones have been dropped from the menu in favor of more usual bar far like burgers, wings, and “fried cheese.”

Sushiko (2309 Wisconsin Ave., NW): Washington’s first sushi bar closed its doors for good in 2013, but its Chevy Chase offshoot ranked 85th on our Best Restaurants list this year.

Szechuan (615 I St., NW): “The city’s best Chinese restaurant” stood at what is now a downtown parking lot.

Taverna the Greek Islands (307 Pennsylvania Ave., SE): Closed. Now the site of Capitol Hill’s We The Pizza.

Thai Room (5037 Connecticut Ave., NW): DC’s first Thai restaurant closed a decade ago, making way for Comet Ping Pong, another pizzeria.

Tout Va Bien (1063 31st St., NW): “Almost all goes well,” we wrote of this Georgetown bistro. Now closed. The space is occupied by Il Canale, a pizzeria.

Tung Bor (11154 Georgia Ave., Wheaton): Known for its dim sum, though we reported that the restaurant also offered shark’s fin dumplings. Closed after trying a new location in Bethesda.

Viet Château (2637 Connecticut Ave., NW): Closed, though you can still eat cheap on this Woodley Park stretch of Connecticut.

Vietnam-Georgetown (2934 M St., NW): “The best Vietnamese restaurant in town.” Closed, replaced first by Little Viet Garden and then cajun eatery Pier 2934. For M Street Vietnamese, there’s still Miss Saigon (3057 M St., NW).

With reporting by Sarah Ehlen and Emma Foehringer Merchant.

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Harrison Smith

Harrison Smith (@harrisondsmith on Twitter) has contributed to the Washington Post and Chicago magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]