By Meron “Mimi” Ghebre (Aug 2013)
“How was work dear? You look like you’re just about ready to throw in the towel,” Bertha said to her husband, Lacey C. Wilson Sr., after a long day of work. Wilson was holding down a job on Capitol Hill as a shoeshine man. He had been saving his tips, but it wasn’t for a new suit, or pearls for Bertha. Lacey had a dream that was even greater than anything materialistic. Lacey had a vision that he was determined to see brought to life and he was willing to work as hard as he could to make it happen. He envisioned a restaurant that felt like home; where the customers were friends, where you could get a soulfully, home-cooked meal for an affordable price. Lacey envisioned a place where blacks could come and enjoy a meal comfortably without being harassed during a time where the nation was filled with racial tension. Lacey wanted to create a home away from home, where people of different races, social standings, and even religions could sit side by side and have a meal.
In 1944, with all his tips saved up, Lacey and his wife Bertha were able to open up a small, humble restaurant right on the corner of Florida Avenue and 11th street in Northwest D.C. called the Florida Avenue Grill. Affectionately nick-named “The Grill,” the cozy restaurant didn’t occupy the full building as it does today, other businesses were alongside it in the same building in a kind of strip mall setup. At that time it only had enough space for two bar stools and the Wilsons cooked in the basement; nonetheless, Lacey’s vision was coming to life. Money was so tight in the beginning that Lacey would send Bertha to the supermarket to buy two chickens, and just as soon as those two chickens were fried and sold, Bertha would take the money, run back to the supermarket and buy two more. That’s why we sometimes say that the Grill was built literally “two chickens at a time.”
Gradually progressing from its humble beginnings, The Grill was already well established in 1968 when it faced one of the most serious threats to its survival. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. sparked riots in cities across America and the U Street corridor was the epicenter of the riots in DC. Many if not most of the businesses in the area were burned to the ground. The Grill wasn’t spared from destruction because the community loved the Grill, but rather, as Lacey Jr. says “Because I stayed up every night at that front booth all night long with a shotgun!” Even despite his efforts, The Grill was firebombed during the riots, but fortunately Lacey Jr. was able to put out the fire. The Grill made it through the riots, and has been standing tall ever since.
In 1970, Lacey Jr. purchased a majority interest in the Grill from his parents. He was able to purchase the building that houses the Grill and, over time, also the adjacent lots that served as the Grill’s parking lot. Before becoming the owner of the Grill, Lacey Jr. served in the Marine Corps for 13 years as a Platoon Sergeant, owned a successful DC nightclub, and several other businesses. It was a difficult time for inner city Washington DC, but Lacey says he never thought about giving up. He believes “The Grill represents soul food.” and that it survived due to his on the job supervision, attention to employee theft, his constant reinvesting in the Grill and the fact that he made sure the food was always good.
In 2005, attorney and entrepreneur Imar Hutchins purchased the Grill from Lacey Wilson, Jr. He made few noticeable changes because he wanted loyal customers of The Grill to understand that new ownership did not mean changing the lovable charm of The Grill that made the Grill famous.
To pay homage to both the Wilsons and the historical significance of The Grill, Imar embarked on building a monument to them. The result is the Lacey Condominiums, an award winning 26-unit building designed by Ali Honarkar of Division One Architects, built on the former parking lot of The Grill. It was important to Hutchins that the Grill and the Lacey co-exist together. He says “Most developers would have wanted to tear down the Grill to get another couple of units, but to me it was important to preserve a critical part of DC history.”
It has been almost 70 years since the Wilson family first established The Florida Avenue Grill in 1944. The Grill has stood the test of time, and has grown to become the world-famous Florida Avenue Grill. The Grill has had its share of challenges but has always been able to bounce back. It has survived everything from natural disasters and recessions to the crack epidemic, crime waves and gentrification—all while remaining relevant. It has recently been determined that it is the oldest soul food restaurant in the world. Lost in a passionate declaration of admiration for The Grill, 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.”
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