When you grow up in New Jersey your expectations about diners are very high. I moved to Washington about thirty years ago—give or take the years we moved back to New Jersey and the time we spend in New York – and it is seldom that I am happy about any diner. Oh sure, the Silver Diners are pretty and remotely look like a 50’s diner, but they simply do not have the same character. And by that I mean, Greek.
There’s something about a Greek diner that is very special. So imagine my relief when Kathleen and Bill introduced me to the McLean Family Restaurant. The restaurant occupies a small space in a strip mall right in the middle of the business district and just a few blocks off route 123—a major thoroughfare, also called the Dolley Madison Highway. Roads in Virginia are often named for historic southern figures like George Mason. who also has some schools named for him. George Mason was and remains a mystery to me but last year, when we made our annual trek to see the cherry blossoms, we found the George Mason Memorial. George Mason, who died in 1792, was a patriot, and a statesman. He is called the "Father of the Bill of Rights”. Mason wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which detailed specific rights of citizens. A number of those people considered to be “Founding Fathers” spoke out against slavery but it didn’t stop them from having slaves. Today we would tell him to put his money where his mouth is and hire a couple of workers. It seems politicians have never changed. Nevertheless, his statue can be found in a lovely little quiet park adjacent to the Jefferson Memorial. There he is, surrounded by some of his best known remarks which are carved into a wall behind his statuesque persona. As it happens, he made some glorious statements about equality and freedom. OK, so maybe he was a hypocrite but he was our hypocrite. We discovered the memorial at the same time that George Mason University was playing a championship basketball game, and needless to say, the memorial was not unscathed but not disrespected.
Back to Dolley Madison, who had a road named after her despite the fact that she was only a spouse. Anyway, The Mclean Family Restaurant is a real diner in a sea of faux diners. And. although they do not have French fries with gravy, or Taylor ham they do have grits. Yes, I know, you would never find grits in a New Jersey diner, but since I have lived in the south (some would argue Northern Virginia is not the south. I would argue if they have grits in a diner, it is) I love them. I am particular to cheese grits, which they do not serve, but that’s OK. They have great eggs, good burgers and terrific salads—my favorite being the chicken breast salad.
But it is not only the food that is attractive. The place seems to draw every important political person in the area. On any day you can find present and former Congress people, lobbyists, lawyers, business people and just plain folks with their kids. It is a comfortable place to meet and talk. No one rushes you out or stands over you in hopes that you will depart. Kathleen and I wrote an entire book over breakfasts at the diner.
And it’s not only the customers who give it a special flavor. It’s the signs on the door and the way people are seated. The signs say “Please close this door before opening the other.” This is to prevent heat escaping in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. But when the line for seating gets backed up people hold both doors open. This could easily be prevented if the people in line simply moved forward (or used their brains), but they don’t and there’s no sign instructing them that they should. And in case you hadn’t noticed people, 1) seem to get in any line forming and 2) don’t take any initiative even if it makes sense. But this is part of the charm of the place. Additionally, the owner knows that people will keep coming regardless of the line, so he is in no rush to make adjustments.
The servers are women who seem to have a wonderful sense humor about work and about themselves. The only time I have seen any sign of disgruntled is when a group of spoiled, ill mannered children come in at busy times, take up space and demand service, and then they don’t leave a tip or even a thanks. I guess there are some disagreements in the kitchen but that’s the nature of the diner beast and the ethnic character. All in all, I am grateful that the MFR--as we insiders say-- exists and although I know you can’t go home again, this is the closest I am likely to get.
Were just sayin...Iris