Urban strivers like to insist suburbia is a soul-deadening place to warehouse failed ambition. I, however, feel no need to defend my choice of safer streets, lower taxes, better schools, and local officials who are misguided rather than criminal. In fact, when my wife and I finally abandoned Washington, D.C., for Northern Virginia four years ago, we really had only one regret: We could no longer walk to Jimmy T’s.
My wife and I are not the only ones with an unnatural affection for the place. I casually mentioned it recently, and a former colleague immediately responded, “Jimmy T’s is the world’s most perfect diner. The form of diner.”
Maybe this has the ring of hyperbole, but, honestly, I can’t disagree. In some respects, it’s a unique place. Just five blocks down East Capitol Street, it has a majestic view of the U.S. Capitol. It’s the only commercial enterprise on a residential block and occupies the first floor of a historic townhouse surrounded by a large brick patio.
For years, the only sign was a piece of paper taped to the inside of the window that said “Jimmy T’s.” These days there’s a more permanent sign, though we longtime patrons have mixed feelings about it.
Inside, it feels familiar and lived-in. There’s a pressed-tin ceiling, a long counter with stools, three beat-up wooden booths, and a few tables. They still use a mechanical cash register (they don’t take credit cards), and the walls and shelves are adorned with bizarre and sentimental detritus of the kind that can only be earned by a beloved neighborhood establishment over the course of four decades.
Washington and the surrounding neighborhood have undergone massive gentrification in recent years, but Jimmy T’s hasn’t changed. There aren’t many places left you can see a senator standing in line to eat breakfast with everyone else.
The joint just feels alive, and in some respects, it is. It’s run by John and Cynde, who are still raising their children upstairs. In fact, if you go there on a weekend, there’s a good chance one of the kids will be your waiter.
Cynde’s father, the one and only Jimmy, started the place while he was also working full-time as an elevator mechanic at the Library of Congress. Cynde has been working there full-time, breakfast and lunch six days a week, since 1978. If there’s any more uplifting way to start the day than watching her Greek-immigrant work ethic maneuver eggs around a crowded flattop grill, I have yet to find it. Somehow she manages to cheerfully greet the regulars walking in the door while keeping all the orders straight.
Mind you, there’s nothing particularly fancy about the food. Specials are written on a white board behind the register, but the menu is pretty standard diner fare—only consistently better than you would expect (as are the prices). They have simply the best burger in the city, because it is deliciously uncomplicated. Each patty is made to order, and the lettuce and tomato are always fresh. Cynde will allow pickle and American cheese if you’re feeling adventurous. The form of burger.
This is reason enough to love the place, but it also happens to be where I got to know my wife.
When we met, she was living catercorner across the street, and we would go to Jimmy T’s together every Saturday. During the initial stages of the arrangement, this involved her telling me over coffee how her date the previous evening went, while I gritted my teeth and deftly plotted my Steve McQueen-esque escape from the friendzone. John, who is rather imposing, by the way, gave me the stink-eye for years until he ascertained my intentions toward her were honorable. He finally relented on the morning of our wedding when he refused to let me pay for breakfast.
After we were married, our housing arrangements were determined in no small part by our proximity to Jimmy T’s. Alas, the inevitable suburban migration means we only get back to the place a handful of times every year. But if we wait too long, we inevitably feel the gravitational pull of Jimmy T’s.
John plies our children with milkshakes, and their eyes light up when he hands them two dollar bills. In between bites of burger and sips of coffee, we peruse the newspaper together and it almost feels like when we first met.
I’ve been to Paris, and it’s nice, but we’ll always have Jimmy T’s.