By Paul A. Holston
With an exciting crowd, a large, delicious birthday cake, and a dancing festivity to top it all off, one of Washington D.C.’s oldest and favorite soul food restaurants, the world famous Florida Avenue Grill, celebrated its 70th Anniversary Saturday at the Masonic Ballroom.
The celebration consisted of a jazz quartet featuring Janine Gilbert-Carter, a photo exhibit presented by Christine Pearl, an extensive buffet consisting of famous entrees and all new vegetarian entrees, numerous guest speakers commemorating the occasion, a cake cutting, and a party session featuring DJ “The Legendary” Chris Washington.
Since 1944, the restaurant has continuously brought not only classic, original recipes to satisfy customers’ appetites, but also an old school feeling from the menu to the interior.
From their DC.Eater.com’s 2013 feature, “Florida Avenue Grill was built with a few chickens at a 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.”
“It’s home,” said Imar Hutchins, current owner of “the Grill” since 2005, “and when you go home sometimes there are ups and downs, but every morning someone has to get up and make the food. Everyday we have to prove ourselves and everyday new customers come.”
Throughout the numerous years of change within the District of Columbia and the many radical events nationally such as the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination, riots, and economic hardships, “the Grill” has stood its ground and portrays an example of the dedication of all who make the restaurant lively and prosperous.
“We really had to take this moment to stop, pause, and think about what ‘the Grill’ has meant to the community and the neighborhood. It was the right time to do this with its 70th anniversary,” said Tasha Hutchins, wife of Imar Hutchins.
Mrs. Hutchins said that one of the things about the historic restaurant is that, “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” Her husband plans to keep it the way it is, but with more ideas of expanding into a wider, diverse type of custom soul food and broadening into more healthy eating, such as having the vegetarian options, she said. “It’s an evolution.”
Nia I. Kuumba, a long time D.C. resident, said she attended the celebration because the restaurant showed much importance to her for historical and economic reasons.
“I’m here for this 70th anniversary because it has meant that much to our community and to the history of our people,” Kuumba said. “It’s extremely important to support African-American businesses because the current generation needs a foundation on how to live, how to build, and how to grow. The restaurant can let them know that it can be done when times are hard and you have no money, but just a dream.”
In a press release, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), who grew up in D.C., said, “Many restaurants have come and gone in the U Street area, but 70 years in business is a big deal in any part of D.C. With that longevity, the Florida Avenue Grill has joined the small group of commercial establishments that rank as D.C. Institutions.”
In the history description of the restaurant’s website, Mr. Hutchins said, “Where else in D.C. can you go and see a congressman sitting down and having a meal right next to a garbageman? Where else in D.C can you go and enjoy the exact experience from 70 years ago through food?” Mr. Hutchins said it best: “The Grill carries so many memories, not only for the employees, but for the loyal customers. So many customers have fond memories of The Grill, it is a home away from home–which is exactly the vision that Lacey C. Wilson worked so hard to bring to life.”
The Florida Avenue Grill is located in the “U” Street Corridor at 1100 Florida Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20009. For more information visit their website www.floridaavenuegrill.com.