“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.
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.