Red paisley printed carpet covers the floor leading to a table with white cafeteria trays and a utensil divider cradling many forks, knives and spoons in their separate sections.
The printed path leads to a tiled floor where a food buffet stretches for about 25 paces. First juice drinks, then salad, fruit, meats, vegetables, rolls, slices of pie and soda, coffee and tea. Behind the buffet are servers dressed all in white from the hairnet down. All smiling while steam rises from the hot dishes.
The tile stops and the carpet reappears at the cash register where little is asked in exchange for a full meal. Pictures of the Pope and religious garnish hang unobtrusively on the walls leading to the beige and white marble square tables. A medium brown wooden chair padded with an orange cushion rests on each side of the table.
Tables to the left and right are filled with regulars, that being all they have in common. Businessmen, homeless men, politicians, students and tourists alike come to Sholl’s Colonial Cafeteria to savor home cooked food at very little expense. In the time of fast everything, Sholl’s, a 72-year-old surviving landmark of D.C., provides an atmosphere where everything is a little slower and tastes a little better.
Evan Sholl founded Sholl’s Cafeteria in 1928 when he was 30 years old. A pious man, Sholl brought his religious values into his business. Until recently prayer cards rested on every table. Printed on the cards were Catholic, Protestant and Jewish prayers to be said before meals. The cards now sit at the front of the cafeteria for people to use because some people took offense to them, Delmo Barbieri, manager and part owner of Sholl’s said. But the cafeteria is still retains a religious undertone. On almost every wall hangs religious relics and signs that read Religion and patriotism make this place a fine place to work and The family that prays together stays together rest on top of the buffet counter.
Sholl’s family-style approach of serving good hearty food and low prices draws healthy crowds. In its heyday Sholl’s boasted eight cafeterias in the District and one in Baltimore. The Sholl’s Cafeteria located at 1990 K Street NW is the only one remaining. Other locations closed because of financial problems, something the downtown location had a taste of last year.
A 20 percent rent increase threatened to close down the Sholl’s legacy forever. Loyal customers formed the Save Our Sholl’s (SOS) Cafeteria Committee to raise money and keep the landmark open. Support came rolling in from customers all over the country. Testimonials by politicians about the sanctity of the establishment rest in Congressional Records.
Heavy media coverage raised attention to the cafeteria’s plight, and many supporters wrote opinion pieces claiming Sholl’s was a part of their lives and memories that should live on and not be overtaken by high-priced coffee shops or fast-food restaurants. The landlord of Sholl’s responded to the SOS efforts and agreed to a more reasonable lease proposal that allowed Sholl’s to keep its door open while only having to raise its prices modestly.
The highest-priced items on the menu today are blue fish, rainbow trout and pink salmon, which each cost $6.50. All items are served a la cart in hearty proportions. Entrees range from $1.85 to $6.50 and side dished from 60 cents to $3.95. It is commonplace to have a full and complete meal for about $5. The low prices are what brings people of all walks of life to Sholl’s.
Sholl’s also offers meal tickets. The tickets, purchased in different dollar amounts, are paid for up front and honored at all times. Michael Kirwan started the idea for the meal tickets several years ago. A District resident heavily vested in homelessness issues walked into Sholl’s one day and gave the owner a check for $5,000 in exchange for about 420 meal tickets. Kirwan’s intentions were to hand out the meal tickets to homeless people so they could eat and asked Sholl’s to never tell any of the people who used the tickets to put anything back if the meal cost more than the meal ticket, valued at $12. He would pay the difference on all meals that cost more. Several months later, after Kirwan handed out all the meal tickets, he went back to Sholl’s to see if he owed them any money, but to his surprise the owner told him he still had a credit of $1,600. The cafeteria had been tabulating the cost of all the meals and deducting it from the price of the $12 tickets. Kirwan was given more tickets and every year he would purchase another $5,000 worth of meal tickets. Although Kirwan passed away last year, his family carries on his association with Sholl’s, Barbieri said.
Outreach and charitable activities have always been an important part of Sholl’s business. Last spring the Sholl’s Community Foundation was established by a group of local citizens interested in furthering a variety of charitable activities, particularly ones that relate to elderly, needy and homeless citizens, the arts and education.
The foundation was named and inspired by Sholl, who was very active in a variety of outreach programs until his death in 1983. He was hailed by the Cosmopolitan Club of Washington as the citizen who has performed the most outstanding, unselfish service to the Washington metropolitan community. The foundation funds programs that feed and otherwise address the needs of elderly and homeless people in D.C., provides scholarships and tuition assistance to needy students, gives awards to individuals in recognition of outstanding public and community service, sponsors cultural and educational programs and preserves Sholl’s as a historic landmark.
Most customers hear of Sholl’s by word of mouth and advertisements for the cafeteria are rare. To increase the size of its student clientele, Sholl’s became part of GW’s Debit Dollars system this year. Barbieri said fewer students come to Sholl’s because of the convenience of carryout competition in D.C., although many GW professors, alumni and GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg were advocates of the cafeteria during Sholls’ rough financial times.
Sholl’s Cafeteria is an extraordinary place, said Paul Claussen, a GW alumnus and SOS committee member. Delicious homestyle meals, huge portions, everything fresh and made from scratch, lowest prices in town, extraordinarily soothing and comfortable atmosphere, a private escape to another world. Better food and lower prices than GW dining services.
The quiet, sanctified Sholl’s venue is a welcome change from bustling J Street. Walking an extra block to an atmosphere that allows its patrons to take the time to slow down and unwind while savoring a slice of pie is what makes Sholl’s a D.C. tradition.