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Capital City Soul:
THE FLORIDA AVENUE GRILL: Highlights from The DC Issue

Highlights from The DC Issue

Photography by IAN ALLEN


Thursday, October 30, 2008

The following piece appears in Issue 37: The DC Issue. For more on this issue, click here

CAPITAL CITY SOUL: The Florida Avenue Grill

By Jon Fasman

John F. Kennedy famously called Washington, DC a place of “Northern charm and Southern efficiency.” Like many aphorisms it sounds good, but it’s wrong: DC is a Southern city. So is its charm, though Kennedy would have been well isolated from it in his Georgetown social sphere. The beating heart of this city is African-American and working-class, with pronounced Southern roots. This was doubly true in Kennedy’s time and when I was growing up here in the Seventies and Eighties, before gentrification and Latin-American immigration reshaped the city’s demographics, reducing African-American Washingtonians from an overwhelming majority of around 80 percent to a mere 55 percent of the total population.

The Florida Avenue Grill has been churning out the food of this city’s heart for 64 years. It probably looks much the same now as it did when it opened: The sort of classic, unprepossessing neighborhood diner — linoleum floors, fluorescent lighting, a long counter with stools covered in red leatherette overlooking a quadruple Garland flat top and steam counter, booths with faux-wooden seats and formica tables — that, like neighborhoods themselves, hardly exist in major cities anymore except in quotation marks.

Ask for “tea” and you’ll be brought a pint glass of brewed sweet tea over crushed ice. Sit at the counter by yourself and you’re likely to be fussed over and called “baby” or “honey” by several members of the staff. Eavesdrop a little and you’ll realize that everyone on one side of the counter knows everyone on the other, and everyone has been coming here longer than you. An ecumenical array of headshots line the walls: not just Lena Horne, Denzel and Ron Dellums, but Strom Thurmond and John Ashcroft, as well as figures from the past like Jasmine Guy and Kris Kross. It feels, in short, like the diner that will make you breakfast every day in heaven, if you’ve been good enough.

Like many diners, the Grill shines at breakfast; also like many diners, it takes a pleasantly languid view of breakfast hours, which last until early afternoon on weekdays and through the night on Fridays and Saturdays (“All-Nite Soul Food Breakfast Till 4 AM”). It shows proper deference not just to the hog, with two types of ham, Virginia and an intensely flavorful country ham, and sausage, but also to geography, with half-smokes, a DC-specific sausage of heavily smoked and spiced beef and pork, and scrapple, a mid-Atlantic delicacy of boiled pig oddments mixed with cornmeal and spices, shaped into a loaf then sliced and fried (it’s better than it sounds, especially when cooked by such experts as the Grill’s short-order men, who crisp it on the outside but leave it soft and smooth within). Further down the menu you’ll find pork chops, fried or smothered, chicken livers in gravy, and homey sides like candied yams, long-cooked collard greens and stewed apples.

On weekend breakfasts the line stretches out the door. Come instead for weekday lunch, when the restaurant is relatively quiet. Last time I ate at the Grill I sat down at the counter across from a waitress’s teenage son and two of his friends. Another group of teenagers occupied a booth at the back; toward the front there was one table of white guys in sharp suits and another with a trio of beefy construction workers. There was no music, nobody else around, and you could enjoy the stage-setting and businesslike chatter of restaurant preparation.

The area around the Grill is traditionally working-class and African-American. It took a downward turn after the 1968 riots, but the Grill stayed open and busy. Now, however, it finds itself just a few blocks from the yuppified U Street corridor. On my way back to the Metro I peeped at a menu in the window of a fancy new soul food restaurant-slash Belgian beer bar on the corner of 14th and U: short ribs for $20 and fried chicken for $16, both more than double the price of the same items at Florida Avenue. I guess you pay extra for the irony.


Ben’s Chili Bowl

Ben’s Chili Bowl has occupied the same location (a former silent-movie house called the Minnehaha) for 50 years, going back to a time when U Street was DC’s “Black Broadway.” Ben’s remained open during the riots that scorched the neighborhood (and much of the city) following Martin Luther King’s assassination. It weathered the construction of the Metro’s Green Line, which rendered the street asphalt-strewn and unnavigable. Today it sits among chic restaurants and boutiques, but remains as popular as ever, serving its signature dish — the chili half-smoke: a smoked beef and pork sausage bathed in Ben’s spicy but thin brown chili — to politicians, cops, club kids and yuppies alike.

Ben’s Chili Bowl: 1213 U St NW, 202-667-0909, Metro: U Street/ African-American Civil War Museum/Cardozo (Green Line)

Old Ebbitt Grill

The Old Ebbitt Grill has been serving oysters and beer to Washington’s great and good for over 150 years (though its Victorian décor dates back only to 1983, when it moved from what today is the National Press Building to its current location a half-block from the White House). The kitchen knows its way around a crab cake; bartenders pour with a heavy but expert hand; and the raw bar is always top shelf, though the rest of the menu is passable at best, designed neither to offend nor delight. Natives deride it as a tourist’s restaurant, but its location and charm draw everyone here eventually.

Old Ebbitt Grill: 675 15th St NW, 202-347-4800, Metro: Metro Center (Red/Orange/Blue Lines)

Market Lunch

Eastern Market may have burned down — an electrical fire gutted the 1873 building on 7th St SE; the city estimates repairs will be finished in 2010, so expect to shop there sometime around 2018 — but Market Lunch still slings grits, pancakes and crab cakes to an admiring crowd from temporary digs just across the street. Prepare to brave a long line (Hill staffers and the occasional congressman on weekdays, locals on weekends), but you will be reminded, at the end, that short-order cookery can sometimes rise to the level of art.

Market Lunch: 225 7th St SE, 202-547-8444, Metro: Eastern Market

Jon Fasman




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