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A Drunk Guy and a Zumba Teacher Walk into a Diner?

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Osman & Joe's is a place I've probably passed by dozens of times. In each instance I'll stare at the gleaming sign proclaiming "Steak 'N' Eggs," think about sampling the tasty treats and then rudely never set foot inside.

I've often wondered, just who goes to a 24-hour joint in the middle of Tenleytown? How has it managed to stay open so long? And really what sorts of magical mysteries lurk inside? Last Tuesday I got my chance to find out. After my grad school class at nearby American University I headed in and planned to stay posted at the diner for as long as I could stand it – or they could stand me. That ended up being about four hours. Here's what went down:

8:57 pm – The neighborhood's already dead with the Starbucks and Paneras of the world closing shop at 9. And Osman and Joe's isn't a vast improvement. I expected booths and perky waitresses making wisecracks to a bustling room of students. The setup, though, is a counter. Literally a counter and the most horizontal space I've ever seen. About a dozen stools, some held together using black masking tape, sit in front of a long silver bar. Every few seats there's a condiment station with a cornucopia of hot sauces. Close to the door there's a phone booth, only the phone's been ripped out of the wall. A single cook stands in the small space separating the customers from the grill. Two brunettes in glasses who look about 20 are chitchatting in the far right. We are it.

9:05 pm — The cook is in a hurry to take orders. He plops the laminated menu in front of me and stands there until I'm shamed into ordering. Scrapple with hash browns eggs and toast. I've never tried scrapple but it seems like the type of place where you should. The setup's like a Waffle House or the counter portion of this legendary New Orleans diner Magnolia. Whether you want to or not, you face the food that's being cooked up — and cooked up quickly.

9:10 pm – It's immediately clear that this is not an establishment designed for lingering. Before I can get my coffee/milk ratio right my food's up. At the same time I'm trying to power up my laptop to keep me company. The screen's blurry and pixilated (and never works the entire time I'm at Osman & Joe's). The place is old-school in every way. Clearly my computer does not fit and this is some higher power's way of telling me modern technology has no place here. Thank God, the scrapple's greasy goodness.

9:45 pmTiffany's song "I Think We're Alone Now" flashes through my head. It's now me and the cook. He tells me that he might get to leave at 11 so it "better stay quiet." I'm thinking the opposite but I guess this is our bonding moment. Several signs on the walls emphasize that to-go boxes are never to be used inside the restaurant. I guess this is an important rule. Then I notice the cook is cracking open a to-go box with what looks like grits. He's chowing down while on his phone in a language I don't recognize.

10: 02 pm — Two girls and a guy come inside desperate for milkshakes. "Do you have soymilk?" one of the females asks. The cook just makes a face. She's a no-go on any menu item, because of its lack of soy. A few minutes later her friends' drinks come up and they disappear into the night. Their milkshakes stay on the counter. The cook makes a similar smirk before racing after them. "How can you just pay for something and leave it?"

10: 31 pm — A wide-eyed couple is there for the first time. "Breakfast at 10:30 – how can you not love that," she says to him practically bursting. "I should tweet about this." That leads to a debate over the best and worst breakfast foods. The guy sitting next to them walks out during this conversation, maybe or maybe not because of the subject matter. This causes panic from the cook. Did he walk out on his bill? Is he being stiffed? Nope, just to use the bathroom out back. This happens at least three more times that night.

10:55 pm — Out of nowhere there's a group of seven. And then four more and then a solo customer until the wall behind the stools is lined with customers. It's a sea of people and mumbling and frantic decisions about whether to go with a burger or eggs. The cook's clearly jinxed himself. I'm peering around and notice a man in workout clothes, with his head down eating a steak with a sheer determination usually reserved for an eating contest. I think I know him, but from where? I'm noticing how much my personal space is being invaded because of the size of this place. Then it hits me. "Do you teach Zumba?" I ask the steak guy. "Uh yeah," he mutters. Further prying and I realized he's the Sunday morning teacher at Vida. "I just taught a class so I'm starving," he says sort of apologetically. This eases my guilt about my less than calorie-conscious meal.

11:15 pm — The kitchen is so busy it's dinner theater. I can't look away from the action. To make the shift switch three more servers and cooks come in to pinch hit. Burgers fill the grill top. They throw potatoes into a deep fryer by a company called the Perfect Fry Company. Hand-written tickets are adhered above with orders scribbled diagonally. It's a dance of movement that keeps up for 45 minutes. I realize I'm staring and then pretend I'm mulling over buying a "Steak and Eggs" hat that's on display.

12:04 am — The first obviously inebriated person surfaces. Or was he stoned? Even though Osman's technically isn't serving patrons outside at this hour, they repeatedly say, the long-haired guy and his two companions plop down in a bench on the patio. The fries they order are gone in mere minutes. The guy double fists them and, hand over hand, they disappear into his mouth in an impressive display of efficiency.

12:29 am — My hands are almost shaking. I'm on coffee cup number 4 or 5, I can't keep track. In a place where average stay time seems to hover around 15 minutes it's the only way I can stick around. One of the servers snatches up a plate from a middle aged man as he's finishing scarfing some type of scramble with heavy onions. I'm starting to get a New York City deli vibe. You're not done with your food? Oh yes you are.

12: 47 am — I spy a date. Interesting choice. She has on an enormous pair of earrings and a mini skirt and looks club appropriate. Her date shoots me a confused glance and focuses in on my notebook. "Are you doing homework? Wowww," he says, extending the syllables. "It's like we're in a movie. Writing down notes. Doing homework." I guess I'm a freak in here.

1:01 am – Another big group comes crashing through the door. There are six of them yet not six seats together. They seem to do the math in their head. If I were to get up there are a few seats on either side of me at the counter. "Umm," the apparent ring leader says. I can see where he's heading. By this point the cooks were on their fifth "Can we get you something?" If I were to stay any longer I might be behind the grill. And no one wants that. "I'm heading out. Take my seat," I tell the group." One tips his baseball cap.
—Dena Levitz
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Osman & Joe's Steak 'N' Egg Kitchen

4700 Wisconsin Ave NW Washington, DC