Photos: Life Inside Bethesda's Tastee Diner

Photos: Life Inside Bethesda’s Tastee Diner

The stories and people behind the local institution

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Photo by Skip Brown

The Tastee Diner’s walls are decorated with autographed head shots of local politicians, newspaper stories chronicling its history, and notes and cards from generations of customers. But nothing epitomizes the diner’s lack of pretension and irreverence more than a sign that reads: “Latte is French for ‘You paid too much for that coffee.’ ”   

When local restaurateur Eddie Warner opened the diner on Wisconsin Avenue in 1935, eating out was rare. In 1958, the classic railroad car eatery moved to its current spot at the corner of Woodmont and Norfolk avenues. Gene Wilkes became its third owner in 1971, and owns the other two remaining branches—one in Silver Spring, which dates to 1946, and another in Laurel, which opened in 1951.

Today, the Tastee Diner looks out of place against the high-rises in downtown Bethesda. Inside, it retains the look and feel of its heyday: Orders are called out by servers, the tabletop jukeboxes only take change, and the check is always hand-written. The same specials have been served on the same days of the week for years: meatloaf on Wednesdays and Saturdays, fried chicken on Tuesdays, and the popular cream of crab soup on Mondays.


Photo by Skip Brown

Open 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, the diner has a rotating cast of characters. During the day, cops might be sitting next to bankers; a real estate tycoon next to a mom with her children. At night, college kids, famished from partying, descend. Recently, a disabled veteran was quietly wheeled into a booth for breakfast. “We represent America,” Wilkes says.

Here’s a look at some of the people who have helped make Tastee Diner a local institution.

ALLEN SNOWDEN, GRILL COOK

For the better part of 30 years, Allen Snowden hated the fact that he made his living as a grill cook at the Tastee Diner. The job, he says, was a daily reminder of his limited aspirations and educational attainment. “I used to be embarrassed by it,” he says. 


Photo by Skip Brown

Snowden, now 52, dropped out of school at age 12 to work at a racetrack in Charlestown, West Virginia. In 1978, he found his way to the diner, where his mother waited tables. He considered joining the military, but when his girlfriend got pregnant, he stayed put. The couple had four children together, but eventually parted ways. After gaining sole custody of his children, Snowden became a single dad, keeping his head down and working 16-hour shifts.

It wasn’t until Snowden left in 2007 for a brief stint in construction that he began to look at life—and his work—differently. He says he realized what a special place Tastee is and the role he has played in its success. “Now, I like what I do and who I am,” he says.


The comfort food menu includes biscuits and stuffed baked potatoes. Photo by Skip Brown

Snowden is now the lead grill cook, preparing up to 15 orders at a time on the diner’s flat-top stove—one of the first images that greets customers as they walk through the front door. The call-out system means there’s no checking on customer requests: just Snowden and his assistant memorizing what’s been shouted out and cooking each order as it comes in.

GENE WILKES, OWNER

Last year, a back injury hospitalized Wilkes, forcing him to take several months off to recuperate. It was the first time in 44 years that he had spent time away from his restaurants. What he missed most, he says, were the regulars.

“They’re your customers, but they become your friends,” says Wilkes, who is 71. “Really, they become your life.”  


Photo by Skip Brown

A North Carolina native, Wilkes has been known to drive around town for ingredients when his daily food delivery falls short. Or pick up employees in snowstorms because the diner only closes for 42 hours each year: from noon on Christmas Eve to 6 a.m. the day after Christmas.

On Christmas morning, Wilkes gets up in the wee hours and drives to each location to make sure everything is OK. After all, 42 hours of stillness in a 24/7 restaurant can feel like forever. 

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