Dining in Style
[from February 2001` issue]

Plenty of people have probably never heard of or eaten at Adams Morgan's The Diner, probably because it's brand new. Open only a few weeks, this place is becoming an instant hit, not only because the food is diner-priced, but also because it is really better than typical diner fare. Wherever else in the diner world would you find rosemary-roasted chicken that has real flavor, real herbs? Vegetables that include haricots verts (French green beans), Parisian carrots, and grilled portobellos?

It takes a kitchen staff with vision to out-cook expectations. The chicken is sure-fire drama, nestled on the plate next to a substantial portion of lumpy mashed potatoes and a scoop of haricots verts. With its crackly skin and tender flesh, the chicken half almost demands a glass of chilled white wine as an accompaniment. And why not? Unlike other diners, The Diner also boasts not only wine (a short list; consult the bottom of the menu) but a full-service bar in the back with its own bar stools.

Maybe you'd prefer the grilled salmon fillet, with herb butter and rosemary-roasted potatoes or the rib eye steak, the menu's costliest dish at $13.95, a bargain still in the world of steakhouse prices. With that you can start with an order of grilled portobellos or chicken tenders in a Sierra Nevada beer batter.

But if all you want is something budget-priced and homey, you can simply turn to their hamburgers--cooked to order, where rare means rare and the beef is fresh and juicy. Sure, the buns are pulled from a huge plastic pack, but after all, a bacon cheeseburger is only $6.95 here. And this--as do all burgers and sandwiches--comes with a side of hot, crispy, salty fries. Alongside comes a kosher pickle spear and the burger is topped with the requisite slice of onion and tomato with a few lettuce leaves for texture and color. Other casual fare includes macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, BLT, grilled cheese sandwich with coleslaw, hot turkey sandwich (using hand-carved turkey breast), and a meat chili.

This last is a catch-all dish with several types of beans, ground meat, bits of corn, tomato, and onion thrown into and cooked in a soupy base. Chili connoisseurs might reckon that this lacks a certain Southwestern fire. But despite its blandness, the chili is hearty and warming, and with crumbled soda crackers over top, just the kind of diner dish you'd expect to find.

As for desserts, expect the requisite line of pies (made on the premises, apparently) and ice creams, but save yourself for the chocolate cake, a newcomer to the menu and a real stunner. Dense and moist and slathered with a chocolate buttercream frosting, this is a cake to dream about.

Open 24/7, this diner, of course, also produces a series of breakfast dishes, which like the other part of the menu, are slightly out of the ordinary. Sure, you can have your eggs almost any way you'd like, even with a rib-eye steak and home fries or whipped into one of several kinds of omelets. But you can indulge in sweeter fare: three jumbo pancakes, French toast with whipped butter, and the two, sort-of French sandwiches--the Croque Monsieur and the Croque Madame--constructed of toast layered with ham and béchamel and melted gruyère, plus a fried egg for the Madame version. Sides include fries, bacon, regular and turkey sausage links, corned beef hash, and grits. More conventional dishes include the cereals, yogurts, and breakfast pastries.

It may get really jammed at peak hours, but before the main mealtime crush, this place resembles any reasonably popular eatery. If you like being part of the action, or at least keeping an eye on it, you may want to head for a stool at the counter, though parents with kids obviously will prefer a booth. And you'll also figure out quickly that the line separating patron from staff is rather vague, since no one seems to wear a uniform and lots of people mingle, sit down, and head behind the counter in a purposeful way. It's all very casual and family-ish--and the formula works. After all, this place is owned by the folks who own Tryst, almost next door, and they know what succeeds.

The Diner, 2453-18th St.; 232-8800. Open: 24 hrs. every day. Entrée prices: $2.95-$13.95. Visa and MasterCard accepted.

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