DC Diary: A blast from the past

Originally Published 09/27/01

American City Diner
5532 Connecticut Ave., N.W.
Thursday, Sept. 20
8 p.m.

I needed a break from the invariable options at J Street. Daily slices of pizza and strawberry tsunami Jamba Juices had become dull, and escaping the GW meal plan for a night sounded appealing.

“An American Restaurant – and proud of it!” As its motto asserts, the American City Diner is indeed a typical all-American eatery, complete with classic oldies jukeboxes, a popcorn machine and life-size photos of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean adorning the walls.

Finding the diner was more memorable than eating there. The restaurant is located at the intersections of Morrison Street and Connecticut Avenue, a considerable 30-minute walk from the closest Friendship Heights Metro stop on the Red line. After becoming increasingly lost in downtown Friendship Heights, I consulted an amiable hotel concierge for a map and directions.

It had rained that afternoon so the smell of forming dew pervaded the cool but humid air. I marched and sweated through a residential area until patriotic red, white and blue neon lights and a large American flag backdrop finally greeted me.

Inside, the diner was hot, crowded and noisy from customers and music. Had I escaped J Street after all?

Bright red seating booths, the counter service and a view directly into the kitchen were the first things I noticed. Later my eyes followed the border of aged Coca-Cola advertisements and black-and-white framed photos from old movie stills. I read and smiled at a sign above the exit that reassured, “It’s Okay to Eat and Drive.”

What really sets this 1950s style diner apart from others is that it offers free movies every night, ranging from silent Charlie Chaplin short films to Three Stooges comedies beginning at sundown. All feature films start at 8 p.m. with a second showing at 10:45 p.m. on weekends.
Movies vary from musicals and classics to children’s films. Upcoming movies in October include Seven Year Itch, The Natural and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

Liberty Heights was showing that evening, and although I missed the first half-hour I still became engaged in watching a film set during the same time period suggested by the diner’s ambiance.

Outside, a covered balcony provides wooden patio furniture to view the 8-by-8 foot movie screen. Despite the traffic and pedestrians beside the deck, the visual and sound quality of the movie was impressive.
As I mused over the dinner menu of sandwiches, salads and sundaes, I noticed breakfast is served all day. Tired of having cereal every morning, I opted for French toast with confectioner’s sugar, a reminder of Sunday morning breakfasts at home.

The dishes are all affordable, varying from $4.50 for French toast to a $14.95 grilled steak-and-eggs special.

Service was prompt and friendly and adapted so that it did not interfere with watching the movie.

While there was nothing particularly striking about the taste or portion of my French toast, the atmosphere of the diner made the trip worthwhile. The restaurant is a casual place to chat with friends if exploring the Friendship Heights area. Also, the walk to American City Diner could be enjoyable if the evening is pleasant, unlike my walk. (I decided to take a cab back to campus.)

It was surprising to find out that the diner is open 24 hours a day on Fridays and Saturdays. Although a bit far from campus, it makes a good place to go after the long weekend clubbing nights.

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