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D.C.’s Unconventional Diner Isn’t What It Claims to Be

Some time ago my boyfriend, James, sent me a text with an attached video, reading, “This is why I don’t go to diners.”

About a minute in, I would never be able to unsee the graphic video of a woman taking a customer’s hot dog out of its bun, hiking up her skirt and giving it a new one up her va-jay-jay.

All who saw the video viewed the repulsive act as a bulldozing of trust at restaurants, collectively agreeing on social media.

James, however, saw it as an egregious act anywhere he could not see his food being made — a feature generally associated with diners– disregarding it could happen anywhere else and reigniting a small spark of opposition into a full-on blast.

Crazy, I know.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t follow suit with similar skepticism.

The point being, I consciously stayed away from diners for years.

But Unconventional Diner was… different,  and drew me in through photos.

 

 

I have to say though: NO ONE would call it a diner without the name being plastered on the building.

It’s charming and eclectic.

A place for hipsters.

Modern and open.

Bright and full of lightness.

Open for business in Washington D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, Unconventional Diner stretches along the block on 9th street.

The big deal –and the barrier setting this spot into a different class– is Unconventional Diner is a chef-driven restaurant; an incarnation of the culinary ideology of chef/owner David Deshaies, a protégé of the late Michel Richard.

When you learn this, you can only expect a certain standard.

You can only expect severed ties with the”greasy spoon” stigma generally linked with old-timey American diners.

You won’t find this spot operating 24 hours either; not even 10.

The diner operates more like a fine-dining restaurant between 10:30 AM and 2:30 PM and reconvening at 5 o’clock for dinner and closing at 10:30.

I have speculation this eatery was built to inject this sense of a casual neighborhood spot associated with most diners.

But, with its punchy graphics, Andy Warhol-designed wallpaper and its mint-teal cushy booths lending to an art-deco intention; it’s too polished to say so.

You’ll notice the glossy, smooth paved floors reaching every wall that you could glide across in your socks like Tom Cruise in Risky Business if you got blitzed enough.

 

 

And you could do that here because the diner has an enormous bar serving cocktails and drafts and high-top seating for those who want to eat at the bar.

The glamorous bar occupies the entire walkway dividing the baked goods area and dining room, you can’t miss it.

 

 

Servers peruse around in tidy, starched black aprons and crisp white shirts mildly servicing patrons.

Observant busboys in black shirts with “Unconventional Diner” printed on the back, keep drinks filled and clear tables.

A fixture, too, was the manager who moved through the dining room periodically during my visit, checking for any impurities in the well-oiled machine.

He meant serious business.

Spacious.

Unconventional diner seats up to 200 people and is undoubtedly the largest of its counterparts in the Washington E. Convention Center Area.

The room stretched farther than my eye could see and the restaurant in its entirety could –without breaking a sweat– fill dinner reservations with large parties and satisfy them with personal space.

We sat near the kitchen in our nook-and-crannied booth in the midst of all the bustle and ordered from the what was remarkable to a diner– a small brunch menu.

While most diners focus on American comfort-food classics for brunch, like omelets, corned beef, french toast, and other classics, count Unconventional Diners out of being like most diners in this respect.

Or, count it out completely.

 

 

Instead, the eatery spins a new twist on smoothies, desserts, and classics, and introduces an unusual, small amount of crafted comfort dishes with cultural influences; an ode to America’s melting pot landscape.

There’s Lomo saltado, a traditional Peruvian dish of steak, onions, and peppers; Morrocan grits served with lamb merguez native to the North African Country of Morrocco; Chickpea Shakshuka, a classic Middle Eastern and North African dish.

 

Did I mention the fries, too, with the sexiest of sauce?

But wait, it gets more unconventional.

There’s a salad, dirtied with squid ink.

Wow-za.

I didn’t order any of this though.

Instead, I wanted to see what became of the eggs benedict — made classic with hollandaise, poached eggs, and bacon, and unconventional with a cheddar-chive biscuit.

You know how the story goes.

You mound your fork on top a jiggly egg and then comes a stream of glorious, volumptous and lustrous golden goo down the side.

The pleasure of a brunch experience can be argued down based on the execution of an eggs benedict, you know.

The dish is seemingly simple, but the nailing of the hollandaise sauce and poached egg — and the pairing of the two– separate the jokers from the king and queens.

I couldn’t sift out any fallacies here.

 

The subtle tang of the hollandaise was just balanced enough– not disruptive– a friendly merger with an unctuous stream of yolk.

There’s not quite a foot in that sauce, but there is a little magic in there.

When I reached the cheddar and chive biscuit though, the sentiment didn’t carry over as well.

I believe Unconventional Diner strives to serve excellent food, but really, the cheddar and chive could work together better to bring about a more cohesive forkful.

What I wanted– and didn’t get– was the oniony-fragrance of the chive, with the sharpness of the cheddar.

Not just the aesthetic.

Calling it dense wouldn’t be fair, but the biscuit of anyone’s dreams wouldn’t be suitable either.

Boring, might be it.

My gripe isn’t really with the composition of the biscuit itself though, its more with the reality it wasn’t served warm.

It didn’t quite have the “freshly-baked” ring to it.

 

 

Anyone who adores biscuits knows, a room-temperature biscuit can’t contend with a freshly-baked one.

Would it have been too much to ask for the warm biscuit I expected?

Possibly and consequently, the cheddar and chive fall flat on an otherwise smart dish.

 

There were fingerling potatoes too, tossed in some garlic-oil concoction I wouldn’t care to emulate at home.

They were cooked tender and toothsome with their waxy skin, yet, I would’ve loved the tradeoff of a crispy exterior, and a creamy interior in its place.

Really, I ate them, because I had too.

The eggs benedict alone, couldn’t fill me; not that anything could fill my endless abyss of a stomach.

So with the addition of the fingerlings, I left satisfied,

The Unconventional Diner has scrapped away that stigma, too, of a gut-blasting plate.

These critiques, though, are all minuscule to the resounding fact that Unconventional Diner is a reliable destination for a quick bite even if more refined.

Just don’t expect a diner.

The Unconventional Diner assimilates well within the confines of being a restaurant and a stable neighborhood drop-in spot for updated comfort food.

Bottom line:

I’m thrilled at the prospect of returning again, trying their version of Chicken and Waffles on my next visit.

Unconventional Diner has a lot to offer and deserves the hand-clap from all who love it for innovation and distinction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Asiah G.

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