“Amidst all the vagaries of life, there’s death and taxes, and Mrs. K’s Toll House,” or so I wrote in a restaurant review for The Washington Post in August 1998.
Death and taxes remain among life’s few certainties. But, 22 years on, Mrs. K’s is no more. The large sign recently posted in front of the venerable restaurant at a major intersection in Silver Spring, Maryland announced “FOR LEASE. AVAILABLE. FIRST TIME IN 90 YEARS.” The pandemic had claimed another victim.
I see these for lease signs on my walks all over downtown Silver Spring: Addis Ababa, Eggspectations, Khyber Kitchen, Not Your Average Joe’s, among others. No doubt there are hundreds all over the DC metropolitan area. A recent New York Magazine cover story was all about restaurants closed for good due to pandemic.
Along with more than 330,000 U.S. deaths from Covid-19, 110,000 restaurants have permanently closed this year since March 17, according to the National Restaurant Association. They represent 17 percent of all restaurants in America.
With all the Covid deaths, it seems almost self-indulgent to worry about the loss of our restaurants, until you think also of the countless thousands of workers – servers, cooks, cashiers and many others whose lives and livelihoods depended on them. Not to mention the times spent there with dear friends and loved ones, some now gone.
For Mrs. K’s, it’s the sad ending to a long history. The original part of the building was used to collect tolls for what was then the Colesville and Ashton Turnpike. After Colesville Pike, renamed Colesville Road, became a public highway, the tollhouse was padlocked and on April 1, 1930 it became a restaurant.
Mrs. K’s was among 20 that pioneer food critic Duncan Hines hailed in his first “Adventures in Good Dining,” published in 1935.
For decades, it was literally a landmark. Real estate ads boasted that homes for sale were “near Mrs. K’s,” and it was used to direct house shoppers (turn right at Mrs. K’s) to others on the market. Three generations of the Kruezberg family, starting with Mrs. Olive Blanche Kreuzberg (the original Mrs. K), ran the restaurant.
There was also a dark side. Up until 1960, help wanted ads for Mrs. K’s specified race. Waitresses had to be “white,” kitchen help “colored.” An opening for a dining room manager specified that the applicant must be white. Even the ads for “colored” help could be demeaning. Read one, published in the Washington Evening Star on Jan. 14, 1960:
DISHWASHER Colored. Over 21: good opportunity to take charge of dish room in high-class restaurant. Don’t bother applying unless you are clean, quiet and reliable. Hours approximate 1 to 10 p.m. with one full day off, and 2 half days off, but must work week ends.
But Mrs. K’s racist hiring practices reflected in the help wanted ads weren’t unique. They were pervasive in the deeply segregated national capital region. This was, after all, the South. Gradually, after the passage of time and civil rights laws, the customs and demographics changed, with many more patrons of color, formerly unwelcomed, coming to dine.
The unwritten but clearly understood dress code remained the same. Dining at Mrs. K’s was always a big deal.
Mrs. K’s was where you got dressed up to sit down at a white-cloth covered table. Going there was a rite of passage for the young, and a welcome tradition for the old and the older, the genteel blue-haired ladies who lunched, and others who came for special occasions, for Mother’s Day, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, and reunions. On Sundays, the large parking lot across the street would fill. And weather permitting, couples were wed in the magical garden out back.
In the mid-1990s, the family sold the restaurant to Dina and Theo Margas. “There is so just so much history and life in the place, you end up falling in love with it,” said Theo, who grew up working in his father’s Greek restaurant in Rockville. He planned changes but “In the continuing tradition of the original Mrs. Kreuzburg,” the new menu said, “changes so subtle,” I wrote, “that, except for the longtime regulars, most diners won’t even notice them.”
No more fried chicken, cottage cheese or salad served family-style but on individual plates, and some more adventurous dishes.
Mrs. K’s was the first fancy restaurant for our son when he was seven, and we made him dress for the occasion. Much later, my wife and some friends who worked for the same agency and lived in the neighborhood would go for happy hour in the basement rathskeller. Mrs. K’s was close enough for them to walk home and not worry about drinking and driving.
When the first pandemic lockdown went into effect last March, Mrs. K’s closed “temporarily.” Briefly, it offered carry out. The idea was that it would eventually reopen. But the hoped for return to “normal” was too far in an unknown future for the restaurant to survive.
Three months before my Mrs. K’s review, I’d written about Sergio Ristorante Italiano in downtown Silver Spring, another local institution that had weathered the economic ups and downs of Washington’s first suburban shopping district. Sergio Toni, who had immigrated years before from Rome, never advertised. He relied on word of mouth and over the years had developed a loyal and mostly older clientele that came to include us.
Sergio kept waiting for the downtown Silver Spring renaissance to assure the future of the family-owned and operated restaurant, and when the pandemic hit things were looking up. Located in a hotel grotto, Sergio’s was an intimate place where we could always expect a warm welcome from Sergio or his son Luigi, and a courtesy glass of limoncello at the end of the meal.
Even more than Mrs. K’s, Sergio’s had become our go-to place for special occasions and, sometimes, for just a nice dinner out. The pasta was homemade, the room was quiet, and the prices were a lot less than at a comparable ristorante in, say, more upscale Bethesda,
Sergio’s was where we had our last meal with our good friend and neighbor George Cato and his wife Elanor in June 2018. George died suddenly two weeks later. Elanor remarked on what a wonderful time we’d all had that night, pretty much staying on until closing time.
My wife and I had our last pre-lockdown restaurant meal there in mid-March. I’d asked Sergio if he would be providing takeout food for customers, but he said no. So, we took a risk and walked the mile from our house to his restaurant where there were just a few diners and tables were spaced reasonably far apart. We walked home in a light rain.
Then, just before the for-lease sign went up at Mrs. K’s, the news broke that Sergio’s would be permanently closed. Sergio is 85, and the pandemic had hastened the inevitable.
Now, we sometimes get supper to go from Locovino, a small food-and-wine place on the walkway above the downtown ice-skating rink. We are happy to support a local business, but my wife’s fantasy and mine is to dine in at Sergio’s once again, when life returns to normal.
Sadly, that will never happen.