By Juliana Capizzi
Known for its bustling and chaotic liveliness, the “Most Famous Diner in Montgomery County,” Tastee Diner, is vastly different from most establishments in Bethesda. Unlike the new and refurbished establishments, the diner is an authentic American restaurant within Bethesda’s constantly changing environment. Most stores in Bethesda tend to close relatively quickly. However, Tastee is about to have its 85th birthday. It was originally opened in 1935 and was brought to its current location in 1939, when its diner car was picked up and relocated to Bethesda. The first Tastee to open, the Silver Spring diner, was made a historical landmark in 1994. The current owner, Gene Wilkes, has owned the restaurant chain since 1971.
The diner exudes perseverance. In 2002, a fire started in the wall when an electrical outlet malfunction occurred. The fire spread rapidly and took over the roof until firefighters from the Bethesda Fire Station were able to put it out. The damages were so severe, the restaurant had to close for two months for renovations. Many diner employees worried that Tastee would lose its customer base, as many customers were used to the diner being open 24/7, 364 days a year. Two months closure was unprecedented. But, as soon as it reopened, business continued as it was before the fire. Beth Cox, the manager, recalls that, “[Business] picked up immensely because people were so happy that it was back open.” The fire, which was a major setback to business, was not the only roadblock for Tastee. Only a few weeks after the reopening, police were on the hunt for a sniper in the DMV area. The sniper, John Allen Muhmmad, ended up murdering 17 people and wounding 10 others. “[The] sniper scared away a lot of business until he was caught. People were afraid to even go outside,” Cox said.
Most of the workers have devoted years to the restaurant. Beth Cox started working as a cashier when she was a teenager and has been there for 42 years. She “never” planned to stay at Tastee. “The majority of workers tend to stay. This is a unique place because you become so familiar with your customers and we do get the same people all the time,” Cox stated. When asked if working at Tastee for a long time was planned, most of the workers responded no. Aster Yalew, who has been working at Tastee for 28 years, claims that, “it just happened.” The well-known David “Your Waiter” Lemar, has worked at Tastee since 2000 and before him, his father worked at the diner. Some of the workers have regular customers who come in, just to sit and chat, not only for the tasty meals.
Bethesda is constantly changing the way it looks, and new establishments pop up within months of each other. One of the recent constructions being built in Bethesda is the Marriott Headquarters, which will be about 26 stories high and located directly next to Tastee. Aster Yalew predicted that “a lot of customers would be upset,” if it closed due to the opening of Marriott. “Tastee is a well-known and special part of Bethesda,” Yalew said. Manager Beth Cox recalled that “Marriott never offered” to buy Tastee for its location and to expand the new Marriott headquarters. “Had they given my boss a certain amount of money, we would’ve sold.”
“Everything is changing in Bethesda. We are not everyone’s cup of tea. There are a lot of people that want more of a trendy, organic, up to date restaurant in Bethesda. What they fail to understand is that we have the exact same organic foods that all the expensive restaurants advertise. My eggs and produce come from a local farm. Tastee is plain and simple. I hope our good food wins over the appeal to revamp Bethesda. I think it will, and it has,” Cox explained. As Bethesda continues to change, some things never will, and hopefully that includes Tastee Diner.