When I first walked into Jimmy T’s, I was immediately given a warm welcome from the staff. I was also greeted by a customer, who upon learning that I was a reporter, immediately yelled, “the food is really good! It’s amazing! I’m not even from around here, it’s awesome!”
That customer is only one of the thousands from the Hill, the District and from all over the country who have come to Jimmy T’s Place (501 E Capitol St. SE,) since the Hill institution opened 53 years ago.
James (Jimmy) Tiches, the father of the current owner Cynde Tiches Foster, opened Jimmy T’s in 1969. Cynde said he came from a family that owned restaurants as he was growing up and had always wanted to open his own.
Tiches Sr. also worked for the Architect of the Capitol, doing elevator repair at the Library of Congress. When the drugstore then located on the site of Jimmy T’s went up for sale, he purchased it.
In the early days, Tiches kept characteristics of the drug store; there were comic books all around the store and he sold ice cream, bread and even medicine. The interior was filled with shelves covered in all sorts of products.
But Tiches also sold pot roast and meat loaf from behind the food counter. Back then, there were many rooming houses in the area, and neighbors would come for all three meals. Tiches worked long days, starting as early as 5:30 a.m. and sometimes working into the early morning hours in addition to his regular shifts at the Library of Congress.
Jimmy T’s is truly a family-run business. Tiches Foster and the rest of her family grew up on the floor above the restaurant and worked downstairs every day, and that tradition continues. Jimmy T retired in 1988, leaving the restaurant to Foster and her husband, John Foster, who have been running it ever since, with help from their sons.
Being a family and a business at the same time strengthens the family through the challenges, she said.
“It’s hard working with family sometimes,” Tiches Foster said, “because we all want to be the boss! We tend to sometimes snap at one another, which if you were to work at a place and not be relatives, you wouldn’t be able to snap like we do!” Still, she wouldn’t trade it for the world. “I still think it’s great working with family. I get to spend time with my loved ones.”
It’s a place with few pretensions. There is no computer ordering system; servers write your order up on the old blue pads and post it for Tiches Foster to cook. These days, utensils come wrapped in plastic. Bills are paid in cash only, rung through on the vintage cash register whose numbers dance in celebration as a check is settled.
There have been a few changes to the interior since 1969. Now, instead of shelving, the dining room opens out to the Hill through a large, open window. In 1987, the Fosters put in the booths, giving the former pharmacy more of a restaurant feel.
The neighborhood surrounding Jimmy T’s has also changed a lot, Tiches Foster said. In 1969, there were a lot more retirees and single borders. Now, lots of young families have moved into the neighborhood to start families.
COVID-19 was one of the hardest times for Jimmy T’s, Tiches Foster said. “I had never expected anything like that to happen in a million years.” Still, she believed that if they worked hard, they could push through it. Despite the effort of the family pulling together, Jimmy T’s was forced to shut down for four and a half months. When they reopened, they began to serve dinner again, in an effort to get customers to return and get revenue back up.
“It was really, really tough,” Tiches Foster said, adding that Jimmy T’s is still working through those challenges. “I mean, we are nowhere near what we used to be.” Even through the hard times, though, Tiches Foster says they had great neighbors and received a lot of support, including regulars that would come in twice a day to try and help them make it through.
Although Jimmy T’s has been on the Hill for more than half a century, they have never advertised, Tiches Foster said. Their customers are their best messaging. They are also their neighbors. Tiches Foster said many have been coming there for 20, 30, even 40 years. “We really have built such a great community here,” she said. “The community has been really great to us.”
Tiches Foster had always wanted to create a business where the neighborhood could come by and feel safe and have a good time. In spite of the multiple challenges Jimmy T’s has faced through the pandemic and the proximity to the Capitol, she’s succeeded in doing so, building on the tradition her father began of family feeding friends –and building community.
Jimmy T’s is still located in the turreted brownstone on the corner of Fifth and East Capitol Streets SE. You can reach them at (202) 709-3557. They are open Wednesday through Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and weekends from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Payment at Jimmy T’s is cash-only.
Piper Cherry is a spring intern with the Hill Rag. She is a junior at The Field School. You can reach her at Piper@hillrag.com.