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American City Diner: This Is What’s Going Into its Former Space

After a long delay, Steve Salis is opening a branch of his Sidekick bakery there.

Photograph by Richard Gunion/Dreamstime.

In the last few years, local entrepreneur Steve Salis acquired two institutions on Connecticut Avenue, promising to reinvent them: Dupont Circle’s venerable Kramerbooks & Afterwords bookstore/eatery and, about four miles up the road, Chevy Chase DC’s American City Diner. Then . . . nothing happened.

Now there’s finally movement on one of the projects. The increasingly decrepit diner, which has sat empty since July 2018, will become a branch of Sidekick bakery, an offshoot of Salis’s Ted’s Bulletin chain. Though there’s no firm opening date, progress is expected soon. In addition to counter service and a sit-down cafe, the space will likely include a small Kramer-branded book component.

The diner’s signature train-car structure will be incorporated into the new space. “It would be easier to knock everything down, but it’s good to keep the heritage,” says Salis, who also cofounded the &Pizza chain and owns the barbecue hot spot Federalist Pig. The space had been planned as a French brasserie, but Salis scrapped that idea after a struggle over zoning issues, which led to this more modest concept.

Meanwhile, plans for Kramerbooks remain in limbo. Salis had hoped to do an extensive overhaul, but the space stretches across three buildings and has three different landlords, making it complicated. Salis is mired in a legal dispute with one of them. (He’s hoping it can be resolved in mediation, but so far that hasn’t worked and there’s a chance it could go to trial.) “We expect to go forward with our plan eventually, but most likely it will be an abridged version,” says Salis, who adds that the previous owners had intended to close the place this year before he took it over with the goal of spending about $3 million to create “Kramerbooks 2.0,” as he puts it.

Salis is also searching for a second location for the store, where he can fulfill his vision of a “whimsical, highly dynamic cultural hub” with books, food, drinks, and possibly live music. Penn Quarter, Capitol Hill, and H Street, Northeast, are currently in the mix.

For Salis, all the delays and directional shifts are just part of the process. “One of the beautiful things about owning a bunch of companies is that we can pivot from one to another,” he says. The two projects have “taken more time than we expected, but that has allowed other things to emerge.”

This article appears in the November 2019 issue of Washingtonian.

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Michele Lerner

Michele Lerner ([email protected]) covers real estate, interior design, and personal finance.