One of the first questions from listeners during my appearance on the Carl Nelson Show on WOL Monday was “can you get other food than soul food at black restaurants?” We were discussing Black Food Month all of March and my constantly updating book Say Grace and Wipe Yo’ Hands: the BlackRestaurant.Net Guide to America’s Black Restaurants.
The answer came from my personal history and from the history of American cuisine, a field that was almost the exclusive preserve of African-Americans in the not too-distant past.
It also piqued curiosity for listeners to learn that there are chains of African American restaurants. I was called upon to list the largest Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery, which Lowell Hawthorne has built into a powerhouse with more than 100 franchises; Texas-based Williams Fried Chicken, founded by the civic-minded Hiawatha Williams and Presidential favorite Harold’s Chicken Shack, the Chicago-based icons now led by Kristen Pierce, daughter of founder Harold Pierce.
Locally, in D.C. It’s signature eatery is undergoing a growth spurt that has the late co-founder Ben Ali smiling. As his widow, Mrs. Virginia Ali, explained during a lengthy interview for Say Grace, they persevered since 1958 through the post-riot decline of U Street. When I was resident assistant at Howard University’s Cook Hall, I would take groups of dorm mates down the hill for half-smokes.
Now Ben’s has it’s own visitor center upstairs, fine dining in Ben’s Next Door, and concessions in both National Stadium and Fedex Field, with a new location under construction at Reagan National Airport.
Henry’s Soul Cafe also has four locations in the District and Maryland. Marcus Samuellsen has put his imprint on the new Howard Theater, in addition to his Red Rooster in Harlem, Marc Burger in Los Angeles and C Lounge in Chicago.
Between Ben’s and the Howard Theater is Oohs and Aahs, which is demonstrating that just one location can attract a global audience. Another of our college favorites, Florida Avenue Grill, has had so many celebrities eat there that it puts their signed photos as the covers of the menus. As an aside, my freshman instructor, revolutionary poet Haki Madhubuti had convinced me to become a vegetarian, but we always made exceptions for Ben’s Chili Bowl and Florida Ave. Grill.