Eternal Soul

Eternal Soul

Tastes change, but the Florida Avenue Grill remains the same

Food trends come and go, but soul food remains the same. More than just a
cuisine, soul food is an American cultural mainstay, as inextricably linked to the African American experience as the pastrami sandwich is to the Jewish one. It’s also really delicious.

Founded in 1944 and claiming to be the oldest soul food restaurant in the world, the Florida Avenue Grill is soul food as it is meant to be consumed: joyously, in a crowded booth on a Sunday morning, or at an even more crowded counter, your elbows touching the elbows of a stranger who, while there are still coffee and hot cakes to be had, may cease to be a stranger. Rest assured that you can Instagram your food at the Florida Avenue Grill. But you’re advised to eat it instead.

Located in the U Street area, a historically African-American part of Northwest, the Florida Avenue Grill is a short walk from the campus of Howard University, the vaunted school known to alumni as “the Mecca.” The U Street corridor, once known as “Black Broadway,” has become a potent symbol of commercial revitalization—and of the very real fears of displacement that the arrival of wealthier new residents provokes. 

The Florida Avenue Grill is that rare spot where the complex constituencies of a city come together: black and white, young and old, rich and poor. Celebrity photographs, framed and fading, line the walls, forming a kind of wallpaper. Collectively, the faces remind you that eating is an engagement with history and culture, not to mention what’s on your plate. 

Kriss Kross, the 1990s hip-hop duo, ate here. So did John D. Ashcroft, the grimly conservative U.S. attorney general, along with Strom Thurmond, the segregationist U.S. Senator from South Carolina. The restaurant has been the subject of poetry (Rehab at the Florida Avenue Grill, by local nurse Veneta Masson) and film (featured in 1983’s D.C. Cab, starring Mr. T and Bill Maher—really).

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Not just mere eateries, these locations are monuments to the richness of the local African-American experience.

A plaque above one booth indicates that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sat there as he planned his March on Washington in 1963. While that’s difficult to confirm, King did eat at the Florida Avenue Grill when visiting Washington. But so did many locals, the people who called Washington, D.C. home for longer than the length of a political term or consultancy contract. “These are the movers and shakers not of the transient capital, centered on the White House and Capitol Hill, but of the permanent city in which people grow up and go to school and support families,” the New York Times wrote in 1985, in appreciation of the restaurant and its patrons.

The founders of the Florida Avenue Grill were Lacey S. Wilson, Sr., who had come to Washington from North Carolina, and his wife Bertha. A shoeshiner by trade, Lacey “envisioned a place where blacks could come and enjoy a meal comfortably without being harassed,” according to the restaurant’s website. “Comfortably” may have been more aspiration than reality: at its inception, the Florida Avenue Grill “only had enough space for two bar stools, and the Wilsons cooked in the basement.” 

In a city with a large African-American population that has deep roots in the South and was nourished in part by the region’s unique cuisine, the restaurant served recipes known as soul food: hot cakes, grits, fried chicken, collard greens. It also thrived because Wilson encouraged cab drivers to come, knowing they would spread the word. (The drivers may have appreciated the ease of parking in an adjacent empty lot, too.)

Lacey Wilson, Jr. took over the Florida Avenue Grill in 1970, just as D.C. was entering a period of municipal neglect, white flight and collective despair. In 1987, Lacey Jr. and his brother Joseph were arrested at the restaurant in a midday law enforcement raid, for what The Washington Post called “a multimillion-dollar fencing operation.” 

Interviewed eight years later for an article about how liberals had failed the inner city, Lacey Jr. expressed a weariness about the Grill’s prospects. Published in the conservative Hoover Institution’s Policy Review, the piece described a downturn for both city and eatery: “Eighteen years ago, when Lacey Wilson, Jr. began working at the Grill full time, the neighborhood brimmed with well-kept houses and children playing. Today, the Grill stands alone in an otherwise vacant lot. In the short time since the District was granted home rule in 1974, Washington has gone from promised land to no-man’s-land.”

  Chrystal Miller, left, and Ashley Brown wait for food at the counter.

Chrystal Miller, left, and Ashley Brown wait for food at the counter.

But the Florida Avenue Grill has survived, just like Washington, D.C. Gentrification has remade the city, with African-Americans losing their majority in the population in 2011, rendering “Chocolate City” the color of cappuccino, in the words of American University historian Derek S. Hyra. This only makes restaurants like the Florida Avenue Grill and Ben’s Chili Bowl more important. Not just mere eateries, these locations are monuments to the richness of the local African-American experience. To replace these and other historically Black-owned businesses with Starbucks would be to lose something essential.

The prospects for the Florida Avenue Grill’s survival were boosted in 2005, when it was purchased by Imar Hutchins, a Yale-educated lawyer who received his undergraduate degree from Atlanta’s Morehouse. Hutchins, a vegetarian, had bought the property and its adjacent lot for development as real estate holdings. But he couldn’t bring himself to consign the Florida Avenue Grill to oblivion.

“I figured, there must be a reason this place has survived 70 years, and there must be a reason I own it, of all people,” he told The Washington Post in 2014. Since those early days, he’s added healthful options as balance to some of the traditional, heavier offerings. Challenges remain. A legal battle between Hutchins and investors almost led the restaurant to close in early 2017. But the Florida Avenue Grill is on as solid ground as it has been since its inception three quarters of a century ago.

While dinner is also served at the Florida Avenue Grill, breakfast is the meal you need, for the morning is when the soul needs nourishing most, especially these days, when the dawn brings presidential tweets and uncertainty about the future. The world is too much with us, the poet William Wordsworth once lamented. Maybe so, but some cornbread or candied yams can ease the burden.

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I arrive at the Florida Avenue Grill on a December morning, the sky above Washington the color of pavement. It’s nearly noon, and the restaurant is crowded. There are George Washington University students pecking at their phones. Older folks, fresh from church, say grace and proceed to dig into fried chicken and other delectables.

I sit next to a man who gives his name as Guy. He went to Howard in the late 1960s. On his shoulders rests the purple scarf of Omega Psi Phi, an historically Black fraternity. Guy and his wife have driven in from Virginia. They aren’t tourists, but she buys a T-shirt anyway. 

We talk politics. Who will run in 2020? Will there still be a United States in 2020 to speak of? The talk is lively and reassuring. The grits are savory and creamy, which should be no surprise. The cooks, “masters of the flattop and spatula,” a Washington Post reviewer noted in a recent visit, “turn out scrambled eggs with a custardlike consistency, bacon so expertly rendered it shatters on first bite, and pancakes with scalloped edges and downy interiors.”

I ask Guy what he thinks about the Florida Avenue Grill. He says, without quite saying it, that the clientele has changed. This doesn’t bother him, though. He’s happy to see the Florida Avenue Grill crowded, full of life.

A manager flits by, happily complaining about the “still poppin’” brunch crowd that continues to pour in. And this is good, too, for it means the Florida Avenue Grill has not been forgotten. Nor have the people who’ve ensured its survival. Those who want to pay hundreds of dollars for tasting menus are free to do so elsewhere. They may be happier with a plate of hot cakes, but there’s no need to shout that from the rooftops.

“This has always been,” Guy says, “our restaurant.”

Photos: Eli Meir Kaplan

Alexander Nazaryan is a National Correspondent for Yahoo News. His time in D.C. is split between covering national politics on Capitol Hill and exploring the far corners of the Metro Area.