On a weekday afternoon at the Florida Avenue Grill, customers perch on stools topped with cracked red plastic, laminated menus in hand. Four wooden ceiling fans churn the grease-laden air. Behind the Formica counter, two waitresses and a fry cook negotiate the narrow space in a kind of breezy dance: a plate of grits here; a coffee for the gentleman on the end; a Styrofoam container of mac and cheese to go; sure thing — you can have extra hot sauce.
Nearly everything about the iconic U Street area soul food joint, which celebrates its 70th anniversary Saturday, is as it has been since it was founded by Lacey and Bertha Wilson in 1944. Much like the battered “Pepsi Cola” clock hanging above the stove — its hands frozen at 8 o’clock for who knows how many years — it’s a place where time almost seems to have stopped.
“Nearly” and “almost” being the operative words. This is Washington, after all, where time doesn’t stand still so much as race forward in frozen-yogurt-fueled bounds. And for evidence of change at the Florida Avenue Grill, one need look no further than its owner, Imar Hutchins.
When he purchased “the Grill” in 2005, Hutchins — 6-foot-3 and beanpole thin — was an activist, lawyer and real estate developer. He also was, and still is, a vegetarian.
“The truth is stranger than fiction, man,” Hutchins says, grinning sheepishly.
The history of the Grill is as improbable as Hutchins’s relationship with it. Established by a Capitol Hill shoeshine man, the restaurant was financed “two chickens at a time,” its staff likes to say: Money was so tight that Lacey would fry up two chickens to sell, and using the proceeds from those, send his wife, Bertha, out to buy two more.
James Hawkins, one of the last remaining Grill regulars, remembers those early days, back when the Grill comprised two stools and a kitchen in the basement. Lacey would walk between the counter and booths, assessing customers’ meals, ensuring all were enjoying themselves.
“And when you left, he’d always say, ‘Y’all come back, you hear?’ ” Hawkins recalls. “And they did.”
As one of the few black-owned restaurants in a racially segregated city, the Grill attracted patrons from all strata of Washington’s African American community — the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael ate here, as did jazz musicians, Howard University students, construction workers and cab drivers. Framed photos of the most famous patrons linethe walls.
“This place was us. It was the place we had to go when we couldn’t go anywhere else,” Hawkins says.
Now 85 and still wearing his customary tan Stetson, Hawkins gets a wave and a “Hey, cowboy” from each staff member as he walks through the door.
Hutchins comes over to inquire about his latest hospital visit, and Hawkins shakes his head ruefully.
“I got aches and pains,” he says. “I’m at that point in my life where you want to ask for a revamp.”
The Grill is due for a bit of a revamp itself. Or at least, that’s what Hutchins is beginning to think.
Though he’d managed a chain of restaurants in the early 2000s (admittedly, they were vegetarian and raw-food), Hutchins had long been relatively hands-off with the grill. He bought the property from Lacey Wilson’s son, along with much of the block on which it stands, to build a glass-fronted, four-story condominium building called the Lacey, and he kept the restaurant running mostly out of respect for its history.
“It’s one of those things where you don’t even want to try and improve it because you don’t want to mess it up,” he says.
But recently, Hutchins has had a change of heart. With all the neighborhood’s newer, younger residents, perhaps there was an opportunity to get patrons to stomach some health food along with their biscuits and chitterlings.
“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,” Hutchins says.
So he began thinking up ways to apply his interest in social justice and healthful foods to the restaurant. At an event at the Grill this spring headlined by Vice President Biden, Hutchins announced that he would increase tipped workers’ pay to a dollar above the District’s minimum wage and begin granting paid vacation and sick days. He also started slipping more healthful options onto the menu: a salad here; a vegan sausage patty there; a sugar-free syrup.
“But we haven’t taken anything away,” he adds hurriedly. “We’ve kept the essence of the place exactly the same.”
As if to prove this point, Hutchins leaps from his seat to open the door for two customers on their way out.
“Y’all come back,” he says. Just as Lacey had.