Florida Avenue Grill was built with a few chickens at at time. Lacey Wilson, Sr., a shoe shiner who saved up his tips to open the then two-stool eatery in 1944, started each day with two poultry. Once they were cooked and sold as meals, he gave the earnings to his wife, Bertha, to buy two more chickens. The cycle continued during the early days of restaurant, which eventually became the oldest soul food restaurant in Washington.
Current owner Imar Hutchins retells this story of the greasy spoon's humble beginnings to Eater DC. Like Ben's Chili Bowl, the restaurant, also known as "The Grill," now has become a popular attraction in the neighborhood. Diners vary, and include long-time residents, new locals, crowds of tourists and even celebrities in entertainment and politics. Professional autographed shots of well-known patrons such as Clint Eastwood, Denzel Washington, Ludacris, Rev. Al Sharpton and Clarence Thomas adorn the walls above the counter and booths of this diner nestled on the corner of Florida Avenue and 11th Street.
The restaurant has also become a part of the pop culture. It was part of the set of D.C. Cab, a 1983 comedy starring Adam Baldwin and Mr. T. Earlier this year, Andrew Zimmern featured The Grill's chitterlings (pig intestines) and scrapple (mushed pork scraps) on Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods."
Hutchins's ownership of the restaurant is also a sign of the times. The developer who managed a chain of vegetarian restaurants in D.C. bought the restaurant from Lacey Wilson, Jr., the founder's son. He also bought the property next to the restaurant and built a sleek four-story condominium building with 26 units that went on the market in 2009. In honor of the past two owners, he called the structure The Lacey.
The Grill's updated offerings also reflect the changes of the modern palate that tint toward leaner fare. Salads, veggie and turkey sausages can now be found among listings of soul food classics such as pig's feet, pork ribs, fried chicken, chitterlings and scrapple. For Greasy Spoons Week, Hutchins dished on The Grill's history and keeping it relevant to the modern times.
Why did you purchase Florida Avenue Grill?
I started in 2005 with the intention of building the structure, which is called The Lacey condo on the former parking lot of The Grill. But it's important to me to keep The Grill because it's such an important part of DC history and such an icon.
What's your relationship with the previous owners?
I'm not related to them, but Lacey Wilson, Jr. is a close friend and advisor. That's the person who I bought the Grill from. His father Lacey, senior, founded the Grill in 1944. Lacey, Jr. bought it from him in 1970. And I, in return, bought it from him in 2005.
What kind of advisor?
Business advisor. Personal advisor. I named the building after him and his father in honor of what they've been able to achieve. There's a story when the Grill founded, Lacey, Sr. was a shoe shiner on Capitol Hill. He shined shoes and saved up his tips. He founded The Grill in 1944. It wasn't the whole building that you see now. It was kind of a little strip mall. A few businesses in that same building. The Grill only had two stools. They didn't have a lot of money. They basically would buy two chickens. Buy them up, sell them. He'd give the wife money and she'd buy some more. That's why we say it was built a few chickens at a time. It's a testament to the dedication and perseverance to Lacey and his wife — her name was Bertha Wilson.
So basically you bought the place because of what it stood for in Washington, D.C., particularly in the African-American community?
Right, but for the whole city. If you look at The Grill, it's a cross section of the District. I heard an old lady there one time. She was like 90 years old. I overheard her say, "It's is just like what my grandmother used to make." I'm thinking, "Her grandmother?!" We're talking about 150 years ago or something. So where else can you go to and taste food the way it was made centuries ago? What's really cool about it, in DC, is that you can see what's it like to be in 1944. Where else can you go and experience the same thing that people experienced in 1944. Not only experience it, but make it one with you? To me, it's like a living museum or living treasure.
Based on your experience in the restaurant scene in Washington, D.C., as well as in different cities, how has the nature of diners changed?
The obvious answer to that is why are they almost non-existent compared to what they were in their heyday? They're an endangered species. There are so many corporate-owned restaurants that are chains with more sophisticated operations. The Grill also has to walk the tightrope because it has to stay true what it is. But it also has to stay relevant. It has to have changes in the way people eat. For example, we have veggie sausages, sugar-free syrup and turkey sausages. Some of the things you wouldn't historically have. But that organization needs to continue. And we are trying to continue it. It's also like you don't want to mess up the magic.
Can you explain more about the magic?
For example, it's a 70-year-old space. It looks like a 70-year old space. It's not like what someone would do if they were building a restaurant from scratch. But, on the other hand, if you gutted it and made it everything new and shiny and modern, people would say it's not the same. Sometimes people have a good thing and they try to improve on it and bring it up to date. And they end up taking away the thing that people loved about it.
Is there anything else on the menu that you've changed to keep the restaurant, as you say, relevant?
I think we try to move — especially for dinner — to a little bit of a lighter and healthier fare. People are a lot more health conscious. But not so much for the breakfast. Comfort food is really popular [during breakfast].
What did you think of the recent Washington Post review of Florida Avenue Grill?
The thesis of the article was that no one comes to The Grill. If you come on a Saturday or Sunday for brunch, you can't get in the door. There's this idea how people don't come there. That's not true. It's not a fancy restaurant. It's a greasy spoon. It's been there forever. It's not expected to be The Palm. It's simple. Not a pretentious restaurant. I was mentioned in the article and no one ever talked to me. The next time you want to write about me, then call me. I feel like, it's factually inaccurate. It represents that no one comes to The Grill. You come at 8 o'clock at night. Our business is 90 percent breakfast.
When people come to the restaurant for the very first time, what would you recommend to them? Something that would capture the essence of The Grill?
I would try the hot cakes, which are really good. Even my wife is always trying to find out how to make them.
They won't give you the recipe? You own the place!
[Laughs] It's not just the recipe. It's who is making it and how. The pancakes are great. They're the perfect combination of crispy and sweet.
The fried chicken, collard greens. It's real food. It's like it's made at home. The peach cobbler is good. The sweet potato pie is good.
What's been on the menu since the restaurant opened in 1944?
All of it. I didn't get rid of any of them. Just added [more items]. That's why I said I try not to mess with the secret sauce. Where else can you get them today? Like the chitterlings and the scrapple. There are not a lot of restaurants where you can get these things. The Travel Channel did a show with Andrew Zimmern.
So would you also recommend that to people who come in for the first time?
Are you making any efforts to court Obama to come and visit?
Not putting any efforts. But we're there every day for whoever comes. One thing about it is that we treat everybody the same, which is why a lot of celebrities love coming to The Grill. We don't take pictures of you unless you want to. We don't make a fuss over people. I remember on Inauguration Day [in 2009], Adrian Grenier from "Entourage", he had to wait for three hours.
What are your other plans for Florida Avenue Grill?
One of our plans is to have outdoor dining. Try to have an evolution of the menu. I believe good food, good service and decor is a good restaurant. I believe we have to keep on working on service, working on food--the consistency, working on the physical environment. It's challenging to have something old and operate while you're making whatever change. One thing I wanted to say, earlier back, is that one of the reasons is important me to keep the Grill, is that it has given opportunities to people that otherwise wouldn't have them. Other places have a tradition of not hiring people who may have been incarcerated or other hardship in life. Many employers wouldn't consider them. But we'll give you a chance. I feel like in 2013, there aren't places that are like that. I thought it was important to keep that as part of DC.
Editor's note: Florida Ave. Grill was briefly closed for business yesterday (after this interview was conducted). The restaurant released this statement to Eater regarding the closure:
We sincerely apologize to our customers for the untimely closing of Florida Avenue Grill on July 16 2013 by the Washington DC Department of Health. A complaint to the Department of Health was made by a disgruntled former employee of the Grill. We would like for our customers to rest assured that we've worked closely with the Department and complied with all the requests made by them. We were inspected the following day and granted permission to reopen.
The Florida Avenue Grill is housed in a 100-plus year-old building which presents many challenges to maintain. Yet, we remain committed to cleanliness, safety, our customers and to serving delicious food. We are open for business and we look forward to continuing to serve our loyal customers and our new customers as well. Thank you for all your patronage the past 69 years.
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[Photo: Gerry Suchy/Eater.com]