WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sholl’s dining area carpet was orange with red and black interlocked designs, and the lighting was soft and gave the ninety-nine-table dining room the feel of a comfortable living room. White-haired men in suits, homeless people with backpacks and bags, businesspeople and office workers, and elderly citizens sat alone and in groups among tables of students from nearby universities, and families with teenaged kids. The chatter in the dining area was peppered with silverware clinking on the cafeteria’s standard-issue dappled ceramic plates and the clattering stacks of clean dishes that workers carried from the kitchen to the serving line. On December 5, 2001, everyone was at Sholl’s for one last meal. After seventy-four years of continuous operation, this was Sholl’s Colonial Cafeteria’s final day of business.
A tall woman with a ruddy complexion and layered, baggy clothes sat alone at a four-seat table. When she finished her meal, she toted away a luggage cart on which was strapped a cardboard box attached by cargo straps. The box was open with a navy blue tote bag and a thermos sticking out.
The tall woman looked to be leaving, but on her way to the exit, she stopped to chat at one especially social six-seat table in the middle of the cafeteria, in the area near where diners exited from the cafeteria’s serving line. Diners at the social table spoke to one another and to many passersby who stopped to say good-bye.
The tall woman spoke with an outgoing, comforting, and earnest woman named Grace. Neither seemed to know the other.
Grace asked the tall woman, “So you’re a regular?”
“Yes,” the tall woman said. “Are you?”
“I’m a regular,” Grace said.
Sholl’s was the last remaining traditional, low-cost cafeteria in downtown Washington. The regular patrons — everyone from office workers and retirees to college students and the homeless to tourists who arrived by the literal busload — were loyal to the restaurant for a number of reasons, many of which reflected the character of the owners.
The founder of Sholl’s, Evan Sholl, and the current operators, George and Van Fleishell, regularly donated to local food banks, gave countless free meals to the homeless, and established an I.O.U. system for diners, all while paying their employees a living wage and serving inexpensive, tasty food. My friend Norman, who introduced me to the cafeteria, often concluded meals at Sholl’s by patting his belly and saying, “Yum, yum, the fuck yum.”
In addition to Norman’s endorsement, many organizations, such as the Council of the District of Columbia, the U.S. Department of Treasury, and the Washington Restaurant Association, commended Sholl’s and awarded the cafeteria numerous honors for its service to the community. These awards hung on the wall, along with photographs from the history of Sholl’s Cafeterias — Sholl’s was once a local chain, with multiple locations around the city — and established it as one of downtown’s landmarks.
The decline in D.C. tourism since the September eleventh attacks, the recent economic downturn, the anthrax scare, and business cuts in the downtown area cost Sholl’s a substantial number of its customers. If you factor in the rising cost of downtown office space, it was plain to see how it all led to more than one-thousand diners turning out to eat at Sholl’s one last time and say good-bye to the cafeteria, its owners, and their friends and fellow diners.
Grace was asking the tall woman who else she talked to. Without waiting for an answer, she said, “Randy? Did you talk to Randy?”
The tall woman had talked to Randy.
They spoke for another ten minutes then said their good-byes.
“See you!” said the tall woman as she headed toward the exit.
“Nice knowing you!” Grace said. “Take care.”
The tall woman waved to Grace. She didn’t look like she was ready to leave, but she pulled her tote behind her, turned the corner, and took two steps toward the exit. Then she stopped, reversed her direction, and returned to the social table, where she spoke with the man who sat next to Grace. They spoke for another ten minutes. Then they said their good-byes.
“Well,” said the tall woman, “I’ll see you around.”
“You take care,” said the man.
And then the tall woman stood at the end of the table and waved to everyone at the social table. “Goodbye!” she said. She waved both of her hands nervously, like she wasn’t used to addressing groups.
“Take care!” said a man at the end of the table opposite the tall woman’s.
“We’ll see you,” said Grace.
The tall woman turned the corner and walked in the direction of the exit.
Two men who looked to be in their sixties sat at a nearby table. One man wore a blue cap, the other wore a black sweatshirt, and they both wore glasses with dark frames. They had already finished their meals but remained seated and in conversation. As a bus boy removed the plates, bowls, glasses, and trays from their table, the man in the blue cap said, “Well, I think I’ll run along.”
“Okay, then,” the second said.
The first man extended his hand across the table for a handshake before standing. “Nice knowing you.”
The second man completed the handshake. Then he asked, “You ever going to that Boston Market?”
“I will occasionally.” The first man seemed surprised that the conversation was still going, but was happy to continue. He returned to his seat and said, “It’s got a lot going for it: turkey… turkey sandwiches.”
“The price is right,” said the second man. He seemed ambivalent about his compliment to the Boston Market, as if he didn’t really mean it. “But Boston Market doesn’t have a lot of variety.”
“They’re open pretty late,” offered the man in the cap. He paused, as if carefully considering his words. “It’ll take a while to get used to Boston Market,” he said.
“Well,” the second man said, “it was only in the past few years that I ate here every night.” He seemed happy that he had found a way to talk about Sholl’s again, and both men began speaking at a quicker pace, even interrupting one another.
“Me, too,” said the first man. "I sort of got in the habit of coming here — "
“I started coming here once, twice a week, then all of a sudden, I started coming every night,” explained the second man.
“That was me, too. It was a force of habit — "
“One thing I like about this place,” said the man in the sweatshirt, “is that they don’t charge you for a glass of water.”
“What do you mean? Some place charges you for water?”
The second man nodded forcefully. “Twenty-five cents for a glass of water.”
“You mean water out of the faucet, or was it bottled water?”
“You know what?” said the second man. “The guy has water in a fancy jug, but I think he takes his fill of it at the kitchen faucet.”
The first man laughed, then asked, “Where is this restaurant?”
The second man dodged a bit. “It’s an Oriental restaurant I go to some Saturday mornings.”
“You go to an Oriental restaurant for breakfast? What do they serve?”
“They have eggs, hash browns. They have scrapple.” As if to defend his decision to frequent such a place weekly, the second man added, “They know how to cook.”
“So you like the restaurant except for the water?”
“Yeah,” said the second man.
“Well, you could bring your own water.”
The men laughed about bringing water to the Oriental restaurant and continued talking.
Two minutes later, Roger Gilbertson, an energetic and engaging retired Navy officer dressed in a navy blue blazer, a U.S. Navy baseball cap, and a navy blue tie with embroidered American flags, stood at the focal point of the dining room, between the social table and the cashier’s stands, where he addressed the dining room crowd in his clear, resonant voice.
Everyone in the dining area stopped eating and listened to Roger.
“Last night we had a formal wake here. Why don’t we have a celebration on this last day? Seventy-four years is a long time to be in business.” Everyone seemed to be in agreement. Roger asked, “Is there anyone here who is coming to Sholl’s for the first time?”
A young woman in a George Washington University sweatshirt slowly raised her hand. Then a man followed, and a third person. Roger said to them, “You’re missing something truly great, folks.”
He returned his attention to the entire dining area. “How many people have been coming to Sholl’s for forty years or more?” Twenty people raised their hands. “What an incredible thing,” said Roger. “Look at all those hands!”
Roger continued, “Folks, this place is a community service. I love Sholl’s, and I think many of you do, too. It’s an absolute beauty that you’re here. This is a crowd that, if Sholl’s had had it every day, would’ve made the restaurant an even greater success.” Roger paused, then asked, “Does anyone else have anything they’d like to say? You may not have my volume, but who gives a damn? You can stand up now and say what you want to about Sholl’s.”
A woman in a red sweater rose from a table near the social table to address the crowd. “I’ve been coming to Sholl’s for a long time,” she said. “And it’s been the cafeteria of my childhood. I’m going to miss it.” The woman stopped, then added, “And that’s it.”
“That’s great,” said Roger as the woman sat. Diners applauded the woman’s story.
Another woman, in a green sweater embroidered with a Christmas tree and candy canes, rose and introduced herself as Ruth. “I’ve been coming to Sholl’s for the past forty years.” That was all that I could hear of her speech, other than that the food was good and her conclusion, “I’m going to miss Sholl’s.”
“Okay,” announced Roger, “People with low volume can’t be heard, but we’re going to have to deal with it because we don’t have an amplifier.” Then he added, “But the people around you can hear, so stand up and talk.”
From the social table Grace stood up to speak. “Sholl’s,” she said, “has a river of love flowing right through it.” She paused for a second, then continued, “One night I was here, and a friend talked about how every single person was treated with dignity and respect when they come here. And I started crying because what he said was so true.” Grace paused and fought back tears. “And I’ve been so sad since I heard that Sholl’s is closing, because this is a community and a place of love in downtown Washington. I pray that there’s some way they’ll be able to open again.”
Diners applauded Grace as she returned to her seat.
“George and Van Fleishell are still in the kitchen,” said Roger as he pointed back toward the kitchen. “Let’s give them a rousing round of applause.”
There was great applause for the owners.
“Let’s see if we can all say ‘See you around, see you later,’ instead of goodbye,” Roger said. He waved to the dining area and said, “See you around, folks.”
Diners applauded as Roger walked away from the center of the dining area. Dinner resumed. Silverware clinked onto the cafeteria’s ceramic plates and the crowd chatter rose up to fill the room again.