When Lacey and Bertha Wilson opened The Grill in 1944, they were the sole employees, and Lacey’s most recent job was as a shoeshine man. Today, it is an epicurean gem, the world’s oldest soul food restaurant, and a D.C. institution.
The decades-long path was not always an easy one. Staff refer to the restaurant as being financed “two chickens at a time,” since Lacey would fry and sell two chickens and then the couple would buy two more. During the violence and unrest that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, the couple’s son, Lacey Jr., who eventually took over the business, says he sat outside with a shotgun to protect the restaurant, and still had to put out a fire that threatened the establishment.
Despite the obstacles, its food has always been revered, drawing celebrities and a notably multi-racial crowd, even when segregation was the norm in Washington, as well as laudatory writeups that include a local food writer claiming that The Grill’s “dense but moist” corn muffins would be his last meal.
In 2005, Lacey Wilson, Jr., sold the restaurant to entrepreneur Imar Hutchins. Although he made some changes, including the tweaked name, he kept most of the original details, and when he replaced the parking lot with a condominium building, he called it The Lacey as a nod to the original owners.
The walls are still packed with framed and signed pictures of countless politicians, athletes, entertainers, and other luminaries who have visited. Patrons can even eat in the “Shotgun Booth,” which features a plaque remembering the stand made by Lacey Wilson, Jr., during the 1968 riots.
Know Before You Go
Everything on the menu is delicious, but ordering the smothered chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, collard greens, and a big cup of sweet tea is particularly sublime. The menu also features some vegan options—an addition introduced by owner Imar Hutchins, who is vegetarian.