by Ann Kessler
On July 2nd, 1930, a new restaurant opened on Connecticut Avenue at Yuma Street NW. The grand opening was quite the affair, with a brass band playing and coupons for free root beer being passed around the crowd.
It was the fifth of the Hot Shoppes chain of restaurants. Founded by J. Willard and Alice Marriott, the chain would eventually become the corporate giant Marriott International.
Our Hot Shoppe was an immediate success because of its location on busy Connecticut Avenue, a short drive from Maryland. Alice Marriott later remembered the site as “pretty much a wilderness” in the early 1930s, but with the help of the Hot Shoppe the area quickly became a destination for people from all over DC and Maryland.
Catering to the high school crowd… emphasis on crowd
With the addition in 1938 of Garfield Kass’s Chevy Chase Ice Palace across the street, the Van Ness Hot Shoppe became even more popular. A regular Friday or Saturday night for a high schooler or a serviceman in the 1940s might include a trip to the Ice Palace’s ice skating rink and 57-lane bowling alley, and then a stop at the Hot Shoppe.
The restaurant was a popular hangout especially for students from Wilson High School, which opened a few blocks away in 1935. The Hot Shoppe’s marketing targeted the students, too. The 1947 Wilson yearbook featured an ad enticing students to come for a meal.
(It should be noted that one of the seniors at Wilson in 1947 was Warren Buffett. It’s possible that even he saw the local Hot Shoppe as quite a deal.)
Another ad, published in The Evening Star newspaper in September 1958, leads with “Going Steady! Teens and Hot Shoppes. They’re made for each other!” And as the ad indicates, the marketing extended to the “Mighty Mo” radio show (named for the chain’s burgers) on WMAL-AM, where teens could “Hear the tunes YOU like.”
The extensive photographs collection at the Library of Congress includes two photos by Esther Bubley, Farm Security Administration photographer, of a young Walter Spangenberg and his date dining at our Hot Shoppe in October 1943 after attending a regimental ball at Wilson High. One photo shows Walter and his date greeting friends as they look for an empty table.
In the second photo, please note Spangenberg’s concentration on filling out his menu order form. Hot Shoppe patrons had to fill out paper order forms and hand them to the waiter. The wait staff just needed to double check the order and take it to the kitchen.
From its opening on, the Hot Shoppe was also an outlet for teenage rebellion. George Tames, a former carhop, would go on to serve as The New York Times’ Washington photographer from 1945 to 1985. For the Senate Oral History Program of the National Archives, Tames described serving “young dudes” and their girlfriends in a root beer garden next to the restaurant.
“They would carry flasks with them,” Tames said, “so when they ordered root beer they’d say: “Two glasses of root beer, please.” Then he’d give me a wink, which meant I put ice in the glass, but no root beer. I sell them that, and they’d give me a little tip for that, and they’d pour a little bit of booze in it and sit there and drink it. Well, you know, Mr. Marriott being a Mormon and against that, he would have fired us if he had known.”
In the 1950s, WMAL-TV, located across the street at 4461 Connecticut Avenue, hosted the “Bandstand Matinee Show” every afternoon between 4 and 5 p.m. When the show was over, as many as 1,000 teenage audience members would be set loose on the community. At one time the police stationed special patrols at Yuma, Van Ness and all the way down to Porter Street as the crowd dispersed.
William Coombs, manager of the Hot Shoppe, reported damage to his restrooms and chairs from this crowd and other teenagers. Other trouble involved late night brawls in the parking lot. At that point, the Hot Shoppe was open 24 hours a day, a change in service announced in February 1948.
What some of the neighbors thought
The restaurant was a frequent target of alcohol and noise complaints. As early as June 1937, the Forest Hills Citizens Association discussed the annoying automobile horns and other noises coming from a late night “curb service” restaurant on Connecticut Avenue. They created a committee, led by Wilbur La Roe, a prominent Forest Hills resident and attorney, to investigate and appeal to the owners to lessen the noise.
In December 1938, another issue created by the Hot Shoppe came before the association. This one involved the increase in traffic caused by the restaurant’s many patrons. This time the association suggested that a four-way traffic light be installed at Connecticut Avenue and Albemarle Street.
In March 1939, the Forest Hills Citizens Association proposed a law restricting the sale of alcoholic beverages at curb service establishments in the District. While this was most likely aimed at the Hot Shoppe, no alcoholic drinks were sold there. Most likely this concern about drunken, rowdy patrons was caused by patrons doing what George Tames described – bringing in their own liquor.
The citizens association was still fighting the alcoholic beverage problem at our Hot Shoppe in 1947. The association teamed up with the Wilson High School PTA and the Woman’s Society of Christian Service at Wesley Methodist Church to oppose the reissue of the Hot Shoppe’s beer license before the Alcoholic Beverage Board. In opposing the renewal, they argued that our Hot Shoppe was a “mecca for high school students.” Hot Shoppes Inc. responded that, while they regularly applied for a license to sell beer and wine at our location, it was just a routine request that wasn’t intended to be used.
Conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan and liberal columnist Frank Rich have at least one thing in common: their love for our Hot Shoppe. In his memoir, Right from the Beginning, Buchanan wrote:
By the mid-‘50s, Friday and Saturday nights usually ended at the Connecticut Avenue Hot Shoppe. The Hot Shoppe was Mecca; pilgrims from the four corners of Chevy Chase arrived. The food was inexpensive, tasty and filling; the double-decker ‘Mighty Mo’s’ Mr. Marriott sold by the millions (some kind of mixed Russian and Thousand Island dressing was used in the sauce) was the greatest hamburger ever invented; and the Hot Shoppe was where the action was.
And Frank Rich, while a columnist for The New York Times, wrote in 1999 of being a Wilson student and hanging out at our Hot Shoppe.
Such was the affectionate grip of Marriott cuisine on my friends and me at Woodrow Wilson High School that even when drivers’ licenses liberated us entirely from parental escort, we still gravitated to the nearest Hot Shoppe on Connecticut Avenue for lunch on school days and dates during the weekend. The price was right, and it was our local franchise of the American Graffiti Dream, albeit with no jukebox.
More notable patrons included two men who would go on to serve as president of the United States. Then-Senator Harry Truman frequently walked from his Connecticut Avenue apartment to grab a quick breakfast or dinner. And according to Robert O’Brien’s book on J. Willard Marriott, 1930s-era Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower would satisfy their cravings for Mexican food with weekly visits for chili and hot tamales.
Changing with the times
In the 1950s, the drive-in restaurant fad was sweeping the nation and our Hot Shoppe added “teletrays” at each parking space. Each teletray, accessible from the driver’s window, had a two-way speaker that would play piped-in music when it wasn’t being used for ordering.
Once the order was ready, carhops, also called curbers or curbettes, would bring out the food and drinks, and place it on the teletray.
In the late 1950s, the restaurant was closed for some weeks for remodeling. In December 1958, the Hot Shoppe announced the reopening of a newly enlarged and redecorated restaurant.
The rest of this quarter-page ad in The Evening Star touts sheltered teletray service spots, but also seating inside for 172 people, a new char-broiler in the kitchen “that seals in every last drop of natural juice,” and a three-course dinner for children priced at only 85 cents. The message was clear. This Hot Shoppe would be known as more a family restaurant than as a magnet for loud crowds.
The 1960s would bring more changes, and the beginning of the end. The Marriotts found bigger profits in the hotel business, and they began closing their restaurants. Our Connecticut Avenue Hot Shoppe met that fate in December 1974.
“We thought we spent a lot of money for (the land) when we bought it… but it’s always been a successful place,” said J. Willard Marriott when interviewed by The Washington Post at the time of the closing. “It was one of the best investments we ever made.”
As valuable as the restaurant was to the company, the land was even more so, and the property at 4340 Connecticut was sold to the National Bank of Washington in October 1974. The bank built the present building to serve as its headquarters in 1976. After the National Bank of Washington failed in August 1990, the building was purchased by the DC government for the use of the University of the District of Columbia. In 2011, UDC’s David A. Clarke School of Law moved in.
The last Hot Shoppe restaurant, in Temple Hills, Maryland closed in 1999. The closure of our Hot Shoppe, a Connecticut Avenue landmark and destination for nearly 45 years, was a great loss to the neighborhood. But it remains fondly remembered by many former patrons.