March-April 2015 | Food & Drink

Photos: Life Inside Bethesda’s Tastee Diner

The stories and people behind the local institution

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DAVID LEMAR, WAITER

On the day of a recent play-off game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers, David LeMar was in full Packers regalia, complete with a Styrofoam hat that resembled Wisconsin cheese. He first started dressing up for work at the diner in outrageous costumes in 2004, and has since done shifts as a clown, a leprechaun, the Easter Bunny and Frankenstein’s monster.


Photo by Skip Brown

At first, Tastee owner Wilkes was wary of LeMar’s shtick. But then he saw that customers liked it, so he let the waiter entertain them. LeMar, 56, says it’s his way of connecting with people, and he knows when to tone it down and be serious. “You either love him or you hate him,” manager Beth Cox says.

LeMar majored in math at the University of Maryland, but says he couldn’t find a job in his field after graduation. He liked waiting tables and found that he made a decent living. He now works part time at the diner and part time as a tax preparer at H&R Block.

LeMar tries to put his orders in to the cooks quickly and get his customers’ food as fast as possible. “I can’t afford to make a mistake,” he says. “If I screw up, they’ll say I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t told so many jokes.”

BETH COX, MANAGER

Beth Cox, 56, says that she remembers criticism more than compliments. Take the woman who called to complain about a BLT she had ordered. Her servers had always asked her what type of bread she prefers, but this time nobody did. Consistency, Cox says, is what keeps regulars returning.


Photo by Skip Brown

Yet when weighed against the “thank-yous” and the holiday cards lining the walls, the complaints seem trivial, she says: “It’s so much more than a restaurant. It’s family.”

Cox, who was hired as a cashier by Wilkes when she was 20, has seen the diner through good times and low points, including a devastating fire that closed the restaurant for nearly 100 days in 2002.

She laments the upscaling of Bethesda and the regulations—minimum-wage hikes, the Affordable Care Act—that she believes will eventually put the diner out of business. She is proud to say that she raised her daughter as a single mom on diner wages, and that her child is now a physician.


Photo by Skip Brown

Cox describes the food as “phenomenal,” all cooked and served with lightning speed. Yet she also believes that the diner is a dying breed of restaurant that many feel is more novelty than necessity. “It feels out of place,” she says.

CINDY AND TONE CRANE, CUSTOMERS

When Cindy Crane was a child, her father would take her to eat breakfast in one of the booths in the smoke-filled diner. Later, she hung out there with high school friends. After she became a mom, she would stop in with her son and daughter after school. Now, her college-age children hang out at the diner on their breaks.


Photo by Skip Brown

“It has the same vibe as it’s always had,” Crane, now 51, said recently over breakfast with her husband, Tony, 53. “Over the years, we have developed a special relationship with this place. What’s obvious is how much everybody cares about each other.”

Crane, a psychotherapist, says the diner was the place where she and her husband, who owns a home energy-efficiency consulting business, met to discuss their financial future during the recession. Both small-business owners, the Cranes talked over breakfast about what lay ahead for their family.
They usually order the same thing each visit. Tony: two eggs over easy with a sausage patty, and buttered wheat toast. Cindy: two eggs over easy with crispy turkey bacon and dry rye toast. “I’ve never had an overcooked egg here,” Tony says.

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Tastee is popular with kids such as Christopher and Lily Brown of Cabin John. Photo by Skip Brown

Archana Pyati is a writer living in Silver Spring. To comment on this story, email comments@bethesdamagazine.com.