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Washington Comebacks Are Causes to Celebrate

April 12, 1987|IRENE HEATH | Heath is an Alexandria, Va., free-lance writer.

They rejoiced in Washington, D.C., when the city's old crown jewel, the Willard Hotel, was polished to perfection and gloriously resurrected last August as the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel. But the Willard's return after standing empty 18 years is merely one small part of a much grander cause to celebrate.

If you haven't visited the nation's capital recently, you have some pleasant surprises in store. The Willard is only one of many favorite old landmarks in the immediate neighborhood that have made comebacks or taken dramatic new forms the past few years. Along with the hotel, the entire eastern end of downtown Washington, the section closest to the White House, had suffered a bad case of urban decay.

The neighborhood has once more become a fashionable place to eat, drink, shop and roam about. (That section of town is now so popular that the latest T-shirt shows a world map highlighting major spots such as Moscow, San Francisco and New York City, and 15th Street Northwest.)

Reopened After Fire

One institution that has literally risen from the ashes goes back to 1886. Fans mourned in 1984 when a fire gutted Reeves Restaurant and Bakery at 1208 F St. N.W. They welcomed the reopening with sighs of relief 14 months later.

The bulk of Reeves business comes from shoppers, working people, suburban families. They know what to expect. The menu rarely changes: chicken salad (made from big chunks of "real" chicken), cream cheese and olive sandwiches, ice cream sodas, pie a la mode.

The recipe for the unusual, "world famous" strawberry pie (strawberries baked inside) has been passed down through generations. The same pie was named the best in the nation in a guide to cheap eating spots, "Pigging Out." It is said that a Vietnam vet who heard about Reeves from a battlefield buddy came in and ate two strawberry pies by himself.

It has always been a family-run restaurant. Rubbing elbows daily with employees are brothers Henry and George Abraham, who bought the business 25 years go from the third generation of Reeves owners. The pre-fire Reeves was famous for its lunch counter, which a writer once described as being as"long as Ohio."

Stools Survived

The only furnishings that survived the fire were the old trolley-like stools that surround the new U-shaped lunch counter. But most things never change. The same baker has worked there for 20 years. Waitresses don't quit; they retire or die.

The modest restaurant (nothing priced over $5) makes little effort to promote itself, but its fame continues to spread. Open 6:50 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Down the street from Reeves is another resurrection of sorts--The Shops in the National Place complex at the corner of F and 14th streets. The collection of restaurants, quick-food stands and stores (for the budget-conscious and big spender alike) is Washington's first downtown shopping mall.

The center's name is a throwback to the old days. Until the '60s, when suburban malls drew shoppers away from the city, there were steady processions in and out of "the shops," as hometowners called the stores along the F Street corridor.

Upstairs in National Place is an imaginative new version of an institution locals remember from teen years, the Little Tavern. (There are still 20 of them in Washington and its suburbs.)

Little Tavern owners have built a classy distant cousin of the humble little green-and-white ceramic huts that have been providing quick hunger fixes to generations since 1928. They've named it Club LT. You can order a 49-cent "death ball," as loyal LT cultists like to call the wee, thoroughly-cooked burger nestled inside a square, moist wraparound roll. During Happy Hour they're free.

Most prices are a little on the uptown side ($4 or $5 for a sandwich, and about $8 for hot entrees), and so is the make-believe diner decor in this sit-down restaurant and lounge--black-and-white checked tile floor, shiny chrome, a red neon tube the length of the ceiling that creates a curved ceiling illusion, a handsome, circular, highly polished wooden bar to lure the after-work crowd.

Club LT jogs the memory. Danny and the Juniors sing "Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay" on the vintage jukebox (three plays for a quarter), and the sandwiches are served by bobby-socked waitresses in white nurses' shoes, frilly white aprons and prim dresses with collars and cuffs. Plans include sock hops.

Burgers for 5 Cents

The walls are lined with black-and-white glossies of young people who must now be grandparents standing in front of Little Taverns, some with curb service, advertising hamburgers for 5 cents.

It's a campy put-on, with the Now Generation never out of sight. The blue plate special is translated to a strawberry daiquiri or cheese-broccoli omelet. Grey Poupon is in. Ketchup is not as visible. (Open daily 7:30 a.m. to midnight.)

Romantics might want to grab a counter seat at an untouched Little Tavern just around the corner from Club LT at 1344 G St. As always, it welcomes the rich, the poor, the tired, the hungry. All night long.

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