The St. Asaph at The Uptowner.

My favorite sandwich shop doesn’t have an artfully crafted design aesthetic. House-smoked meats do not grace its menus, and you won’t see it grabbing headlines it in Going Out Guide or Young & Hungry. My favorite sandwich shop doesn’t have a multi-channel social engagement strategy. It doesn’t have a Twitter handle.

What’s my favorite sandwich shop? You’ve probably never heard of it.

My first visit to The Uptowner Cafe in Columbia Heights — not to be confused with The Uptowner Cafe in Foggy Bottom or the The Uptowner Cafe in Old Town Alexandria, none of which has a website to link — was borne of necessity. The Uptowner occupies a ground-floor unit in the historic Tivoli Theater building, the upper floors of which house the offices of the interactive design agency where I began work in March. Lacking an umbrella in the midst of a particularly torrential spring downpour, hoofing it to a more fashionable eatery was not an option. I ended up instead at the dingy little joint downstairs. Every cloud, etc.

Although the neighborhood’s culinary reputation is built largely on its taquerias and bakeries, newer development has brought more diverse, arguably more upscale offerings, and The Uptowner is the type of place that could be easily overlooked. For a hungry lunch goer, its curb appeal ranks somewhere between Potbelly and a liquor store deli. There is a TripAdvisor sticker in the window, but the Uptowner is immune to the type of trends that might lure a tourist this far north. Ambiance is nonexistent. There’s not a frill to be found.


But, oh, the sandwiches! With the exception of the St. Asaph, an inspired combination of smoked turkey, artichoke, tomato, mozzarella, bell pepper, and pesto mayo, the Uptowner’s offerings illustrate perfectly how careful technique and attention to detail can elevate even the most familiar sandwiches. Individual leaves of basil between are tucked meticulously between perfectly uniform slices of tomato and mozzarella on the Uptowner, an immaculate Caprese. The Payne, a  faithful rendition on the classic roast beef and horseradish, and the Little Italy, a flawlessly executed, straightforward Italian meats combo, showcase the precision of a skilled craftsman. Even the tried-and-true BLT, stacked neatly on toasted Lyon bakery bread slathered with mayo, feels fresh and new. These sandwiches are the antithesis of gourmet. The raw ingredients are unexceptional, but like all good sandwiches, they are more than the sum of their parts.

I ended up at The Uptowner by accident, and my conversations with the staff over countless return visits have been limited to essential pleasantries, but there are things that can be known about this place without having to ask. They don’t do what they do for hope of enthusiastic blog posts or glowing Yelp reviews. (Though they’re doing pretty well there anyway.) This is just how things should be done, and it’s universal: Work quickly for a fair price, take pride in what you do, and do it the best you can. Then wait for rain.

So, don’t judge a book by its cover, and all that. Don’t wait for circumstance to force you into the little unassuming corners of your world. I suspect there are Uptowners in every neighborhood of every city, waiting to be discovered.

What’s your favorite sandwich shop we’ve never heard of?

May 28, 2014