Coming together to enjoy delicious food is a staple of the Black community. From brunch after church on Sundays to weekly dinners with the family, eating together provides a space for Black people to build community.
However, restaurants have not always been accessible or welcoming to Black individuals. During the Jim Crow era, paying Black folk were often refused service at restaurants. Still, there have always been places that fought against this and created unique eateries specifically for and by Black people.
Ben’s Chili Bowl and Florida Avenue Grill were both founded in the mid-1950s, and they have been serving the District throughout the Civil Rights Movement up to today. These restaurants continue to uphold their missions of providing safe and joyous places where Black folk can gather.
Ben’s Chili Bowl
Ben’s Chili Bowl is one of the oldest Black-owned restaurants in the District. The store on U Street in Washington, D.C. has been a fan favorite since Ben and Virginia Ali opened its doors in 1958. They are most known for their house-made chili and half-smokes which are still prepared using the original 1958 recipe.
While Ben Ali passed away in 2008, his wife Virginia Ali is still living in the District at 88 years old. She started the restaurant with her husband when she was only 24. Sixty-three years later, Virginia and her food are still a pillar of the Washington, D.C. community.
What makes Ben’s Chili Bowl so special? They have always upheld their mission of being a delicious eatery where Black community members can come together and safely gather over comfort food favorites. The restaurant started as just one location on U Street, but now they have several locations including Ben’s in Arlington, Ben’s on H Street NE and Ben’s at DCA.
Meanwhile, the Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation raises funds to give back and fund organizations that make a difference every day in the District and more. They supported 28 organizations and have raised over $200k for food pantries, healthcare services, and educational services.
Florida Avenue Grill
Florida Avenue Grill is the oldest soul food restaurant in the world.
Located on the corner of Florida Avenue and 11th street in Northwest D.C., the grill was built by Lacey C. Wilson, Sr. He worked as a shoeshine man on Capitol Hill, but he always imagined starting his own business and opening his own restaurant in the District. After receiving support from his wife, Bertha,
Lacey opened Florida Avenue Grill in 1944 as a space where Black people could eat home-cooked meals in a comfortable and unpretentious environment.
On their website, they explain, “[Lacey] 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.”
Since its opening, Black historical figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. have patronized this establishment. Today, Florida Avenue Grill remains a District favorite — especially beloved by Howard University students who frequent the restaurant for weekend brunches.
Florida Avenue Grill also hosts regular events in support of Black eateries and community members in the District. Last New Year’s, they hosted a “Vegan Brunch Party” to educate others on the benefits of eating plant-based meals.