Dave Thomas Circle doesn’t exist. Or at least, not officially. It’s the nickname Washington, D.C., residents have given to the labyrinthine intersection of New York and Florida Avenues and First Street at what used to be the northeastern edge of the city. At the center of the circle’s many lanes and turns sits a Wendy’s, hence “Dave Thomas” circle, in “honor” of the restaurant’s founder.
And so this Weird Wendy’s has sat since sometime in the 1980s. But this seemingly permanent monument to randomness marked its last day as a functioning restaurant on Tuesday. The D.C. city government had announced in February its intention to acquire the property via eminent domain; thinking its demise imminent, I memorialized it at the time. As it stubbornly remained over the succeeding months, I thought that somehow Wendy’s had reversed the decision. Yet a few days ago, D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser announced that its closure was at hand.
Which is why I, as a resident of northeast D.C., came to the parking lot of the Weird Wendy’s late on Tuesday night. Not to get anything, mind you; I’m not much of a fast-food guy. I just felt some strange need to be present for its twilight. And I was not alone. Despite the difficulty of entering the parking lot of this Wendy’s, the drive-through was packed when I arrived. I had driven there as well, hoping to go inside; alas, indoor dining had already closed. So, uninterested in actually getting anything to eat, I just stood in the parking lot.
I was not alone in that, either. Many people had come to the Weird Wendy’s. Some were just taking pictures. Others, like me, hoped to go inside, and, like me, were rebuffed by a locked door. Still others, desperate for a last meal at the vanishing restaurant, tried the old trick of ordering from the drive-through as a pedestrian. And for whatever reason — sympathy, a desire to get rid of the last of the food stock, what have you — employees at the Wendy’s appeared to oblige.
Apart from observing the goings-on, I spent most of my time in the Wendy’s parking lot speaking with some other area residents about the end of the random restaurant. I had learned that indoor dining was closed from a woman named Cynthia, who had parked her car in the Wendy’s lot. She also claimed to be the last customer able to eat inside. She told me that, when she walked in about 45 minutes earlier, employees were surprised to see her there; only then did they realize they forgot to lock up. The cash register there had to be booted back up, and the manager filled her order. When I asked Cynthia if she would miss the Weird Wendy’s, she answered in the affirmative. “It’s a landmark,” she said.
Joshua, another area resident who had showed up to witness the end, joined me in conversation with Cynthia. Though only a few years older than me, he could recall many of the changes that had taken place in the surrounding area during his life: a carwash here, a Burger King there. He hoped that the end of the Wendy’s would improve the traffic pattern in the area.
Cynthia had her doubts, and I agree with her. The plan for the intersection is not to turn the plot of land on which the Wendy’s sits, accidentally spawned as a strange quirk of the city’s growing past its original grid, back into road. It will, instead, become a park. A cynic might think that the only real improvement of this plan will come from removing the traffic coming in and out of the Wendy’s itself, with few to no other changes. This would be only a marginal amelioration, as on most nights other than this one (a special circumstance), the Wendy’s has rarely been excessively crowded by cars.
So what brought people here tonight, then? Aside from a desire for Wendy’s, there seemed to be an ineffable feeling that something more than just a fast-food restaurant was about to be lost. To many, the Weird Wendy’s was a testament to an older Washington, D.C. A place that had not yet so thoroughly benefited from the increasingly ostentatious and unseemly nexus of government and corporate power. A place in which long-extant neighborhoods maintained something of their abiding charm. A place that, despite being the nation’s capital, could seem at times more like a small town than a big city.
You could make all sorts of arguments in favor of the removal of the Weird Wendy’s. But what can’t be denied is that it was a lingering rebuke to the designs of planners who have grand ambitions for what places should look like at the same time that they have contempt for the seemingly haphazard features of neighborhoods to which their residents nonetheless become attached. Evidencing this attachment, Joshua told me he hoped that the park planned for the Wendy’s lot honors its past in some way. “Leave a sign here that says, ‘This was a Wendy’s,” he suggested.
Indeed, it was.