Growing up in Washington, D.C., Gladys Sutton passed Ollie’s Trolley many times on the bus and by foot — but never stepped into the downtown diner until one Friday afternoon this spring.
“I finally went in, and it was mind-blowing,” says the 65-year-old, referring to her chosen order of steak-and-cheese and fries. “It used to be flooded with people outside and in, and I always would look over there, but I never did get the opportunity to go in.”
Situated at the prominent corner of 12th and E Streets NW since 1989 and attached to D.C.’s third-oldest hotel, Hotel Harrington, Ollie’s Trolley is an anomaly in a bustling neighborhood better known for fine dining, shopping, and trophy office buildings. The unchanged Ollie burgers and peppery shoestring fries are the diner’s main attractions. Ollie’s is part of an ever-shorter list of downtown holdouts — an old-timey bastion of Pennsylvania Avenue-adjacent diner culture that seemingly manages to keep chugging along without doing much at all. Yet, its days (at least in its current location) are likely numbered for a myriad of reasons.
Long before the pandemic decimated lunchtime options in the neighborhood, downtown office tenants were being hit hard by rent spikes and moving on, leaving a trail of fresh for-lease signs in their wake. And so, too, have evaporated many of Ollie’s regulars. Lawyers, medical groups, and the like — they’ve packed up and moved to other D.C. corridors like K Street NW. Now, another threat is bearing down on the little former chain diner: a pending sale of Hotel Harrington. Charles McCutcheon, the owner of the hotel until he died in 2020, was the grandson of its co-founder. The family is reportedly selling the entire hospitality property to Steve Salis, the mega D.C. entrepreneur who co-founded &pizza and runs Ted’s Bulletin and Federalist Pig (Salis did not respond to a request for comment for this story).
Boris Galitzin, the owner of Ollie’s D.C. outpost, says the prospective buyer for the property gave Ollie’s the okay to stay up to a year after the deal closes. Galitzin says he’s open to looking for another location for Ollie’s when that time comes.
A bygone burger chain, Ollie’s was founded by its famously grouchy, cigar-puffing founder, Ollie Gleichenhaus, in 1930s-era Miami Beach. Burgers at the D.C. branch are still built the Gleichenhaus way with his top-secret spice blend (composed of 10 ingredients), then slathered with a proprietary Ollie’s sauce that mixes Thousand Island dressing with those aforementioned seasonings. The temperature even follows Gleichenhaus’s medium-rare golden rule. “If you ordered your burger well-done, Ollie would use obscene language and kick you out of his restaurant,” Galitzin says. Even today, customers have to put in a special request if they want their patties cooked another way. But there are minor changes: Squirt bottles of ketchup are on hand, despite the fact that Ollie would tell customers to “get the F out” if they wanted ketchup with their fries.
Former Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown, who catapulted “Colonel” Harlan Sanders into stardom with his Kentucky Fried Chicken, tried to do the same with the eccentric founder of Ollie’s. Brown crossed paths with Gleichenhaus when he was running Ollie’s Sandwich Shop in Miami Beach, and after a brief courtship, he hired the proprietor to train the staff at the governor’s hot dog-and-beer chain, Lum’s, in the ways of the Ollie burger. Brown went on to invest in the Ollie’s brand, believing Gleichenhaus’s 32-spice combo was the burger equivalent of the Colonel’s chicken recipe. By 1976, there were roughly 100 Ollie’s Trolleys nationwide, with most east of the Mississippi River.
Unlike KFC, the story didn’t end as well for the Ollie’s franchise; the chain started to drastically downsize in the late 1970s. It was at that point that Galitzin’s family bought up a few local franchises, including D.C.’s and ones in Alexandria, Crystal City, and Pentagon City in northern Virginia. Today just three independently owned Ollie’s are still standing, with the D.C. location being the biggest in both size and menu by far (the others occupy tiny trolley-shaped cars in Louisville, Kentucky, and Cincinnati under different ownership).
Galitzin bought the D.C. remnant from his niece in 2007. Wrapped in faded red-and-yellow signage, the beacon for burgers welcomes customers with a massive porcelain cow balancing on a ball and a note: “don’t touch the valuable antiques.” The shiny statue, tagged with an ankle autograph from its SoCal sculptor in 1989, manages to hang from ceiling panels with wires and plastic wrap. The walk-up counter is just as rudimentary and random, from visible Staples calculators to Sharpie-written signs on the register saying “NO REFUNDS” and “cash only” — a quirky policy for downtown that somehow makes sense here (turn around to use a wonky ATM with an outdated $1.50 surcharge).
Ambiance, seemingly stuck in time from its 1989 opening, comes from a confetti-patterned carpet, canary-colored walls begging for a paint job, vintage sconces, wobbly wooden tables, cracked vinyl booths, and a static-y boom box radio blasting easy-listening hits like Stevie Wonder’s “Part-Time Lover.” Even the current owner still does things the old-fashioned way. Galitzin, a longtime local from Bethesda, Maryland, can’t stand iPhones and swears by multiple flip phones instead.
Galitzin switched up the beef recipe when he took over, opting for 100 percent Angus chuck roll and beef brisket aged 14 days from Maryland’s Roseda Farm, which gets ground in-house a few times a day. He also installed a sleek steel charbroiler that imparts a flame-grilled effect to burgers, dogs, and steak-and-cheese orders. Famous customers under Galitzin’s watch have included everyone from Oprah — who waited outside in the car for her burgers — to boxing champ Floyd Mayweather and his camp, who stuck to their strict training diet regimen by requesting straight-up patties (no buns) wrapped in foil.
Ollie’s longevity might also be attributed to its good ole fashioned affordability: Prices remain relatively reasonable compared with other White House-adjacent restaurants (around $6 for hot dogs, $4.95 for generously portioned fries, and burgers below $10, a rarity outside of fast food here). Galitzin swears by fresh Idaho and California potatoes for Ollie’s famous fries, stuffed in brown lunch bags and finished with Ollie’s historic fry-specific blend of 26 herbs and spices. He believes the secret to great-tasting fries is using fresh oil. Despite rising oil costs, he changes his out three times a week. (The fast-food fry connoisseur even tracks the exact day his favorite Ocean City boardwalk chain, Thrasher’s, changes out its oil and tips its employee for intel on which day to come back.)
The pandemic has had a lasting impact on Ollie’s, says Galitzin. Though the restaurant’s hours are technically 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily (and until 10 p.m. on weekends), closing time is lately more like 7 p.m. While some decades-long employees still remain at Ollie’s, Galitzin laid off half of his staff during COVID — a significant loss of manpower that impacted keeping the restaurant open later.
“The pandemic destroyed us,” he says. “We’re not even close to being recovered. Tourists aren’t like they used to be, and a lot of locals who used to work downtown are now home at their computer.” Still, Ollie’s has endured, where others have not. Downtown D.C. has lost 43 fast-casual restaurants since April 2020, per stats from the Downtown BID, including Bolt Burger, Leon, West Wing Cafe, Red Velvet Cupcake, and multiple Pret a Mangers and Cosis.
As Ollie’s faces its almost certain fate of closure and relocation, customers and passersby still remember the diner in its prime. Passing by Ollie’s as both a kid and an adult, Gladys Sutton remembers staring at the choo choo train, old jukebox, and other treasures showcased inside. “To me, that was the eye-catcher that grabbed your spirits and made you reminisce about [being] young,” she says.
Yet, some of the old-timey touches Galitzin added and inherited after taking over Ollie’s are visibly amiss as of late, like a 1950s-era kiddie carousel horse with 50,000 Swarovski crystals, a rare Coca-Cola machine, and late 1800s-era peanut and popcorn machines. He sold off the kitschy antiques at auction for the money not long ago in preparation for the building’s sale but “lost his shirt,” he says, recovering only a quarter of what he paid for them. What remains are framed prints of Georgetown’s long-gone railway cars and retro LA Film Expo posters with “don’t touch” reminders taped up everywhere.
Decline in eclectic charm seems apparent in recent Google reviews from locals and drive-by tourists, with criticisms pointing primarily to the diner’s dilapidated state and dire need of a makeover.
Ollie’s incidental location has likewise sparked political tension. The hotel where the diner resides is home to Harry’s Bar, the D.C. pub of choice for many pro-Trump protestors that drew national attention in 2020 for hosting white supremacists, election deniers, and mask-less patrons. “We didn’t get accused of any of that, thank God,” Galitzin says, but when Harry’s was fined with COVID violations and temporarily shut down for a few days, Ollie’s ended up with some Proud Boys customers by default. “What people don’t understand is we are a hotel restaurant; we are not in politics — we don’t discriminate against anyone,” says Galitzin, stating that he is not a Trump supporter.
For now, Ollie’s rolls on, making do, though maybe not thriving as it once did. Behind the counter, the staff scribbles orders on big pieces of white paper that double as the covers on customers’ red plastic trays and are handed right over the register. A smart customer orders a thick bubblegum-pink milkshake with real chunks of strawberry while waiting for their meal. In a sea of fast-casuals powered by QR-code-enabled tablets, Ollie’s is a welcome anomaly in its modern neighborhood. A cross-section of locals, tourists, office workers, and longtime leasing brokers in the area continue to pop into the time machine for a midday dose of nostalgia and childhood-inducing memories while sipping a nice, thick shake.