by Mike Corrigan

All of the seating at Arny's is counterside, most with a clear view of the grill, soda fountain and food prep areas. In fact, some seats are so close to the grill that those of us with long frames would have little trouble flipping hotcakes with only a casual lean over the counter. I wouldn't advise it, however. Owner and head cook JoAnna Butler would not dig it. Affable, capable and a tad gruff, Butler is a commanding presence here, conversing with regulars, dispensing nuggets of personal wisdom and candid commentary on everything from local politics and the media to soda vendors -- all the while making damn sure everyone is satisfied. It feels like family in here, a family with no secrets. (Forget intimate conversation -- everyone in the place will be tossing in their two cents.) There's a deep appreciation for sardonic humor (when a joke is told anywhere along the counter, everyone gets in on it). Ask Butler if Arny's is her place, and she'll typically respond with a quick wave of her arm, "This is me."

The building that houses Arny's began life as a traditional drive-in with a walk-up order window in the front and a couple of card tables just inside the back door. For almost 40 years, the Dairy Freeze was a mandatory stop on the local drive-in circuit. (I seem to recall coming down here during my high school daze for gut busters like the Double Whammy and the Stromboli.) In 1989, the drive-in was expanded into a 17-seat, '50s-style diner and re-named Arny's.

When we first showed up at about 12:30 on a weekday afternoon, we thought we might not be able to score a seat. The place was full, bustling with a pan-generational and social mix, everyone from GU students and basketball players to buttoned-down business and blue-collar types and seniors. Ah, but there they were: a pair of seats at the turn of the L-shaped counter, near the cash register, with an end-on, panoramic view of the grill and the entire restaurant. Perfect. The d & eacute;cor in here is 1950s diner all the way. It's clean, tidy and accommodating, with lots of chrome fixtures and accents, art deco lighting and a red, white and black color scheme.

The menu has changed a bit from the Dairy Freeze days, but there are several remnants. For instance, you can still get a Double Whammy (two beef patties, two slices of cheese and all the trimmings on a French roll for $6.19) and the Stromboli (the specialty of the house, with ham, provolone and homemade meat sauce on a French roll for $4.29). Arny's also does shakes, malts and sundaes the old-fashioned way with real ice cream ($2.89 each). Elsewhere, breakfasts rule. There's an Eggs O'Brien ($5.19), a three-egg scramble with onions and green peppers, served with toast and hashbrowns, and the colossal Bomber Omelet ($8.19) with -- get this -- six eggs, onions, green peppers, ham, stromboli sauce and cheese with 'browns and toast. The lunch selections aren't too shabby either and hit all the diner sandwich classics: Pattymelt ($4.99), BLT ($4.99), Club ($6.49) and French Dip ($5.89). They all come with fries.

After careful deliberation -- or as much as I could stand with my guts growling -- I decided on the Philly Steak sandwich ($6.49) with fries. The French roll was soft and chewy and was bursting with more tender, savory beef strips, diced green pepper and onion than it could possibly contain (I watched as JoAnna simply piled the extra meat next to it on the plate). Though I'm not a big fan of the processed "Swiss" cheese she uses on the sandwich, I have to admit that it -- along with the light mayo and savory beef -- conspired to create one helluva tasty sandwich. The fries were between shoestring and steak in size and were delicately crisp and light with no initial salting. I poured the sodium on myself, utilizing the thoughtfully positioned counterside S & amp;P set (napkins, ketchup and mustard are also conveniently right there).

My camera-slinging diner compatriot ordered from Arny's "Bomber Series," a selection of burgers named after famous implements of death from above. The B-52 ($4.99), a bacon cheeseburger with a 1/4-pound beef patty, cheese, two slices of you-know-what, lettuce, tomato, onions and special sauce, wasn't at all flashy -- just neatly constructed, fresh, robust and deeply satisfying in that "man, that really hit the spot" sort of way.

After our cover was blown, JoAnna convinced me ("You have to try one") to add a milkshake to the tab, a chocolate-cherry malt. It had been awhile since I treated myself to a real ice cream shake (in a fountain glass, with more on the side in the stainless steel mixing cup). It was fantastic -- further proof that when it comes to food (and pretty much everything else) at Arny's, JoAnna really does know best.

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