Hard Times Cafe in Arlington: Even the local chili parlor has gone yuppie

Yuppies on parade in trendy Clarendon

Wrapped up my Rolling Thunder weekend in the Washington area with a visit to the Ballston-Virginia Square-Clarendon area of Arlington County — home to Amy and I for the 23 years we lived in the National Capital Region.

Visiting the old neighborhood is a mixture of memories and trauma. Over two-plus decades we watched a sleepy area of home-owned businesses and small ethnic restaurants change over to a plastic, yuppie neighborhood of upscale shopping, overpriced coffee shops and high-rise condos built to serve the Washington subculture of government executives and workers in the private sector that served that government.

Ballston was home to a great Polish bakery, and a nightspot called Eskimo Nells that served locals and bikers. Whiteys served the locals with “broasted chicken” and featured a large neon “eat” sign in the window.

We moved into Tower Villas, a 17-story high-rise condo that towered over other buildings in the Virginia Square area. It would remain our home for 23 years. When we left, Tower Villas was swamped by other high rise office buildings and condos. Still, some signs of the old neighborhood remained — a Pizza Hut across the street, an IHoP just down Fairfax Drive and a garage with the best mechanics around. Hechts still anchored Balston Common, an urban shopping mall that rose from the ashes of Parkington — the Washington area’s first shopping mall.

Only the iHOP remained when I rode through the neighborhood Sunday afternoon following Rolling Thunder. I parked my bike near a gleaming CVS drug store that replaced an entire block of Vietnamese restaurants, shops and grocery stores. Our favorite sushi restaurant was gone, replaced by an office building.

At least Hard Times Cafe remained and I walked in to order a bowl of Texas dry with a side of jalapenos. The waitress looked confused.

“Dry? We only serve the Texas chili one way,” she said.

“Then bring it the way you serve it,” I said.  Hard Times used to feature its Texas chili “dry, medium or wet,” which was a measurement of the amount of grease included with the coarse ground beef-based concoction.  I glanced at a menu that used to feature just chili, hot dogs and burgers. Now it has steaks, wraps, salads and other yuppie concoctions.

Even Hard Times has caved in.

The chili arrived — a mixture somewhere between the old “dry” and “medium.”  I dumped the jalapenos in, added some hot sauce and woofed it down with diet Coke as a chaser.  The bill came to 11 bucks — more than twice what it cost when we lived in the area.

I rode out Wilson Boulevard towards Seven Corners, then turned right on Virginia Rte. 7 through Falls Church and on to Tysons Corner — a suburban shopping mecca when we lived in the area but now a “satellite city” of high rise office buildings, hotel complexes and — of course — upscale shopping. Weaving the bike around the many potholes of the road — under construction — I took a detour to reach Rte. 123 and rode through Vienna. Lots of new places there as well but at least Vienna Inn — home of the region’s best chili dogs — was still in business.

At the intersection of Rte. 123 and U.S. 50 a Fuddruckers where we used to enjoy hamburgers was still there. The chain abandoned the Roanoke area several years ago but hasn’t left Northern Virginia — something to remember on my next visit.

More construction along Rte. 28 into Manassas before turning right on Sudley Road for the final leg back to the Red Roof Inn — home for one more night before heading home to the mountains and Amy.