“This is the place to be in Prince George’s,” says Stone, who explains that not so long ago much of the conversation overheard in the restaurant would have been about keeping people like him out.
“The first black judge in the county had to come to the back door of the restaurant,” Stone says, pointing over the booth and to the kitchen. “They sold slaves right up the street,” he says pointing in the opposite direction where, behind a house, there remains a stone auction block upon which black people were displayed.
Long after Prince George’s became the most affluent majority black county in the country, the Olde Towne Inn remained one of the few places where some blacks said they felt unwelcome.
“And now, here is a black man that has transformed a restaurant that used to be an all-white watering hole into a cosmopolitan restaurant,” says Stone of owner Donnell Long.
This restaurant with its Tiffany chandeliers, exposed brick walls and top-notch chef, turning out crab-stuffed salmon, pulled pork sandwiches, waffles and chicken, was segregated until after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act against discrimination in public accommodations and remained unofficially so long after. Now it is a multiracial destination owned by a black chef with his own story of transformation.
“I wanted it to be a place where everybody feels like it’s their spot,” says Long, 41, who took over the restaurant’s long-term lease in 2006. “I felt if they walked in these doors, I can kill them with kindness.”
This is where the powerful in Prince George’s go between the hours of 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. to see and be seen. It’s a place where deals are made and broken. A place where people of all races dine together now with little thought of the past.
Long greets Stone, the county administrator, who greets a fleet of walking titles: School Board member Carolyn Boston, who is black, passes the table and stops to say hello. She turns, and behind her is vice chair of the County Council William A. Campos, who is Latino. State Del. Aisha A. Braveboy (D), who is black, waves as she takes the next booth.
“Campaigns are set in here,” Long says. “You have folks coming here who are going to run for office. Developers are here meeting lobbyists. You can see if they are trying to hire a lobbying firm. You’d be surprised what you learn over a good burger.”
When Long signed the lease on the Olde Towne Inn, it had been called the Judges Chambers. For more than 80 years, the restaurant has been the main watering hole in the county’s seat. It sits next door to the old courthouse, a block away from the county administration building. It is one of only a few sit-down restaurants on Main Street, and miles from the next town center. Its location is essential to its evolution.
“When I came into the county in 1980, blacks were using all the facilities in Upper Marlboro,” says June White Dillard, executive director of the Prince George’s African American Heritage Preservation Group. “But before that, that was not true. It was strictly segregated, and blacks simply were not allowed in most establishments except at the back door.”
DeVan Daniel Washington, a prominent lawyer in the county, remembers coming here after he won a big case about 10 years ago. He brought with him clients and expert witnesses.
“We had about five people. I was going to pick up the tab,” Washington says. “I sat here and sat here, and I realized they didn’t seem to want to provide me service. So I took my money and left. They seemed indifferent.”
“I don’t know whether it” was racist, he says. “I didn’t care. What it was was stupid. I hardly ever came here after, until I heard it was bought by a black guy.”
Alexander Williams Jr., senior judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, worked in the early 1970s as a law clerk to Judge James H. Taylor, one of the first black judges in the county. Taylor told Williams that the restaurant wouldn’t even serve him. “He said it was a tough place at a tough time of resistance to open housing and public accommodations,” Williams says.
Stone, who first came to the restaurant when he started working in Upper Marlboro in the 1970s, remembers “it was a restaurant that catered to policemen, state’s attorneys and investigators. It had a sense about it.” He says he would come in for lunch and hear patrons talk about how they “had to beat back” the black people coming into the county along Southern Avenue. Only they didn’t say “black people.”
“That was the tenor of the times in Upper Marlboro,” Stone says.
The owners, who were white, “would come to me and apologize for the conversations. But it has transformed just like the county, from a hostile environment to minorities to being owned by a minority.”
The chef has no written history of the restaurant he now calls his own. But he knows what it takes to transform something and change its narrative. Long, who was born in Great Barrington, Mass., and his older brother were found abandoned in a car in New York City.
“I was 3, and my brother was 9,” Long says. He has a vague memory of a police station in New York; his next memory is in Washington. He doesn’t know how he and his brother got to Washington.
After being placed in a series of foster homes, he and his brother were taken in by a woman he calls Mrs. Sharp. “I believe she saved my life. I was bad. And everybody I knew was getting shot and killed. A lot of my friends are not here.”
After graduating high school, he went to Washington Culinary Arts School. His first job was in a deli in Potomac. From there he moved to a restaurant in Montgomery Mall, then the Cheesecake Factory. He was partner at Stonefish Grill on Capital Centre Boulevard, which ended with a legal dispute about ownership. Because of the lawsuit, Long spent months traveling from Largo to Upper Marlboro. One day, his attorney came across a notice that the lease on the Olde Town Inn was available. He persuaded Long to take it over.
Long gutted the restaurant and brought in upscale furniture, installed six booths covered in burgundy leather and marble tables. He hired 15 employees and repaired the tin ceilings and hung photos of Redskins players behind the bar. Long, who now works with a foster care foundation and hosts annual Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners for children in foster homes, says he wants his customers to feel comfortable when they come in the restaurant.
Maureen Lewandowski, who is white and works at the bank across the street, says she loves the restaurant. She says she never heard about the time when blacks did not feel comfortable here. “It’s a community place,” she says. “Not just for courthouse people. . . . Donnell cooks me my special meal. If I come in by myself, he will introduce me to the person sitting at the next table.”
The restaurant is filling up with its evening crowd. At the bar sits a white man, next to a black man, next to a black woman. They listen to a Marvin Gaye song playing on the speakers and talk football. A white man in a blue overcoat walks in and shakes the hand of a black man at the bar and joins the conversation.
“The transformation of this place,” Stone says, “has been remarkable.”