A survivor that’s missing its soul
By Tim Carman
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
My watch reads a few minutes past 8 p.m. as I wait for my two friends at the Florida Avenue Grill. At present, I’m the sole customer inside the iconic diner on this Friday night even though, a few blocks over, a colorful horde of tattooed flesh, sagging pants and high heels clicks along the U Street corridor searching for a fashionable place to perch.
Employees at the Florida Avenue Grill, by contrast, appear to be working through their closing procedures, a good hour before the place is scheduled to lock its doors. They’re wiping down surfaces, filling drink dispensers and laying out utensils, each set tightly wrapped in a paper napkin, for the next day. The workers look ready to start their own weekend, and I feel guilty about ordering a late-ish dinner in an establishment better known for its all-day breakfast and lunch service.
But I have a mission. I’ve encouraged my friends to join me for an old-fashioned taste of Florida Avenue Grill, which continues to serve the kind of calorie-laden, offal-oriented short-order cooking that inspired a new generation of chefs to pirate soul food dishes and refine them into, say, free-range chicken and Belgian waffles for $18 a pop.
Nostalgia, that powerful driver for all middle-aged saps, is partly fueling my return trips to Florida Avenue Grill. But so is some recent news: Owner and developer Imar Hutchins wants to inject new life into the old grill, which Bertha and Lacey C. Wilson founded in 1944. Hutchins’s team has been toying with the idea of adding salads, sandwiches and maybe even alcohol to an operation that, for decades, has larded our waistlines while slaking our thirst with juices, teas and soft drinks. Some of the additions could arrive by summer.
“We’re trying to ensure that we’re here to celebrate the 100th anniversary,” says general manager Shawnda Steward. “We want to be part of the changing community around us.”
That changing community includes the Lacey, the glass-and-Erector-Set condominiums flush against the south wall of the historic diner. Named after the two Lacey C. Wilsons, Sr. and Jr., who nurtured the eatery through some turbulent times, the Lacey is another Hutchins project, proof that the developer is serious about siphoning some of the cash that has hit the U Street corridor.
Hutchins and his staff are sensitive to the history of Florida Avenue Grill; their changes sound more small-scale and surgical compared to the wholesale aesthetic shift that the condos next door represent. The owner wants to preserve at least 90 percent of the current menu, just as he wants to keep the autographed head shots that decorate the diner’s perimeter, each a reminder that Ben’s Chili Bowl isn’t the only joint that attracts celebrities and politicians in need of D.C. soul-food cred.
On this Friday, though, I’m just looking for a little stick-to-the-ribs soul food, period. We order enough plates to cover the table in our rickety booth: pig’s feet, smothered pork chops, Southern pan-fried chicken, mac and cheese, okra and tomatoes, and much more. We even request Miss Bertha’s Breakfast Special, complete with syrupy pancakes and sausage patties, as if to reinforce the notion that chicken and waffles isn’t the only sweet-savory combo available for dinner in a real soul-food operation.
As we dig in, the three of us talk as if we were under orders to voice our complaints gently, which tells you something about the respect Florida Avenue Grill commands among those who appreciate its place in D.C. history. The fact is, though, I love only the pig’s feet, this glaringly unglamorous pile of steamed trotters whose tangle of softened skin, fat and gelatin almost melts on my tongue while its heat provides a welcome bit of irritation. The rest of the food pales by comparison, a lethargic, rest-home blandness infecting too many of the plates (though the griddle cook did a superb job of crisping the edges of the fluffy hot cakes).
A couple of weeks earlier I had a similar lunch-time experience with author Joan Nathan, who wrote one of the best essays ever on the Florida Avenue Grill in her 1984 volume, “An American Folklife Cookbook.” “In 1944,” she wrote, “most restaurants were segregated, but never the Florida Avenue Grill.”
Once its vinegary sauce had disappeared on the palate, our barbecue spare ribs were little more than chewy and underseasoned meat paddles, the antithesis of the succulent, savory character of soul-food and barbecue cooking. The Cajun-fried catfish tasted as if it had officially been stripped of its bayou credentials, the fillets moist and flaky underneath a light, sweet and virtually spice-free coating. Most of our sides, in fact, suffered from a similar sugary sweetness, even the overcooked collards, which barely registered on the vinegar scale.
Joan again served up the most quotable line: “The soul,” she confided, with no small amount of concern, “is missing in the soul food.”
I’ve been stewing on Joan’s line for several days now, worrying over its many implications: Has my palate become jaded? Were my memories of the diner overblown in the first place? Has Washington outgrown its taste for home-style soul food? And, perhaps most important, can Imar Hutchins save the Florida Avenue Grill for the next generation of D.C. diners?
The Florida Avenue Grill is no ordinary greasy spoon. It's been paying homage to diner food, Southern style, since 1944. Although lunch and dinner are served, if you want a real treat, come for breakfast. And know right off the bat that this is no place to bring your diet.
Luxuriate in the pools of butter at the center of the mound of light and tasty grits (you can get them as part of the chef's special, $6.95, or as a side order, $1.50). Enjoy one -- or two -- of the many varieties of pork product available. While the country ham is a bit stringy, the Virginia ham is a thick, huge slice -- flavorful without being overcured or oversalty. And the scrapple here is a masterwork (an order of three pieces is $1.95). The cooks have achieved that elusive scrapple yin-yang: crispy on the outside, tender without being mushy on the inside. And the zing of spiciness on the tongue is just right.
There seems to be a temperature problem with eggs: Whether fried or scrambled, they tend to be cold. But you'll forget that in a second if you taste a forkful of scrumptious French toast, break off a bite of perfect corn muffin or scoop up a mouthful of heavenly fried apples (a side is $1.50; it's a must-taste).
If you come at the prime Saturday morning breakfast hour, expect a wait -- and in crowded, sardine-can circumstances. But it's more than worth it. And if you can get out of bed early enough, you may run into Janet Reno. The cashier says the former A.G. comes in for breakfast nearly every Saturday morning she's in town. She's a woman of taste.