Inside the Florida Avenue Grill, the city's masters of soul food prepare to take on the malcontents who come with a cold, fall morning. Shivering, empty, ornery and hungry, a throng of patrons has filled the booths and lined the counter. It is 10:30 a.m., time for breakfast.
Head waitress Ophelia Jones, wearing a white, nurse-style uniform, hair net and hot grill battle scars, commands her troops at the front line dining booths.
"Double eggs over medium," shouts a hungry man.
"Apples on the side?" Jones shouts back. "Potatoes," the hungry man says. "Biscuits?" Jones asks. "And cream and sugar with the coffee," he adds.
Ornery, with half-opened eyes, a regular customer cries, "What can I use to stir my coffee?"
Jones wakes him up with a few caffeinated words. "Use your tongue, or use your foot," she snaps with glee. "It's your coffee."
Ornery is alive and kicking, now, stratching his beard for a clever comeback. But the service has started, and sound of a sizzling grill and country aromatics has changed his mood. When one of waitresses heads his way with a heaping, steaming plate of grits and salmon cakes, Ornery turns amorous, reaching out like a baby from a highchair. His face is in plate; his knife and fork tap and stab, rake and scrape the magic of soul food. His (break)fast doesn't stand a chance.
The Florida Avenue Grill, at Florida Avenue and 11th Street NW at the foot of Cardozo High School, opened with the idea of providing Southern, countrified food in a city that was essentially Southern and countrified. Dishes are piled high with what have been the people's choice of meats and side dishes since 1944, from fatback to hamhocks, ribs to roast beef -- not to mention collard greens and chitterlings.
Although the place has been advertised in restaurant magazines as a good place for "cheap eats," and featured in a recent movie about D.C. cabdrivers, the diner retains its down-home style.
That's because the grill is not just a diner, but also a salvation station, serving up soul food not just how you want it, but also how you are used to getting it.
John Gray, for example, likes his dinner for breakfast. Irritable after driving his cab in a cold morning rush hour, he wants to take his frustrations out of his food. His plate is a battleground, topped with half-plowed piles of mashed potatoes and string beans and rivulets of gravy winding through a field of corn muffins' crumbs and beneath a bridge of smothered chicken bones.
"And I might add that it's finger-licking good," says Gray. "Notice how I gave that chicken a black eye?"
Ophelia Jones, master chef and waitress at the grill for 30 years, manages the traffic, keeping the rhythm of the grill soulful, the atmosphere warm and spicy.
Joe Wilson, the son of Carl Wilson, the grill's founder, manages the cash register and gently reminds Jones when a waitress has forgotten to give a customer his bill.
Although she is doing a dozen other things at the same time, she handles the boss man effortlessly.
"Don't worry about it, honey," she says. "We make money. Money don't make us."
Deftly, she writes up a bill and fields another order.
Jones' women move like swans with overstuffed plates through the throng. "Excuse me, love," says a waitress as she takes sugar from a customer. "Here we go, darling," she says as she gives it to another. Says Jones: "We're really nice girls. We just like to have fun."
Through the doorway, a shivering, sniveling moan is heard as a small child is hauled in by a young professional couple. They are in the midst of an argument over who is going to take the tot to the day care center.
The adults get cups of coffee and start talking about how good the food smells. They calm down. The child, staring in other patrons' plates, yells out, "I'm hungry," and gets an adult size portion of food. Soon, the kid is totally engrossed in a fistful of grits. Wide-eyed and fat-gutted, he licks his fingers and lips. When he is finished, his tone has changed. "I want mommy," he says with a contented smile.
Once again, the soul food magic had worked, and the grill's reputation has been well earned for serving it as it's supposed to be.