Self-Guided U Street Food and History Tour
From our DC Tourism Guide, with budget advice, travel guides, and information about local Washington DC attractions.
Once known as “Black Broadway,” U Street remains a trove of the capital’s African American history. The neighborhood first developed during the Civil War, as the city’s population jumped from 70,000 residents to over 200,000. Once the streetcars were completed on 14th and 7th streets, the U Street neighborhood became much more accessible.
In 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau (a resource for recently freed men which provided housing, health care, jobs, etc.) was established within the War Department. Many formerly enslaved African Americans moved to the area after the Freedmen’s Hospital was built where Howard University Hospital is located today. Shortly thereafter Howard University was founded, which was the first bi-racial university below the Mason-Dixon Line.
The neighborhood continued to grow through the late 19th century, but became much more racially segregated as post-war Jim Crow laws such as Plessy v. Ferguson stipulated “separate but equal.” Despite the inequality, U Street thrived during this time. African Americans interested in art, music, dance, or theater flocked to what came to be called “Black Broadway.”
However, after many years of relative peace, racial tension began to mount in the area as the Civil Rights movement took hold over the nation. The building unease would culminate in utter chaos and destruction following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968. Though looting and riotings erupted all across the country, Washington, D.C. would see the worst of it. The city was shut down for 4 days as 1,750 federal troops were brought in to combat the violence.
The U Street corridor, which devastated by the violence and crime-ridden for the decades that followed, would not see a revival until after the metro was open in 1991. Since then — and especially in the last 10 years — U Street has rapidly been gentrified: historic sites, such as Lincoln Theater, have been restored and reopened; crime rates have also dropped immensely in the area. However, despite its positives, the rising cost of living also means that many U Street natives are no longer able to afford to remain in the area.
Start: Ben’s Chili Bowl — 1213 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009
End: The Coffee Bar — 1201 S St NW, Washington, DC 20009
STOP 1 — Ben’s Chili Bowl (A)
Opened in 1958 by Ben Ali and his wife, Ben’s Chili Bowl is the most famous restaurant in all of Washington, D.C. During the 1968 riots, Ben’s would write “soul brother” in their window to ward off violence and welcome peaceful guests. The restaurant garnered a lot of publicity after Bill Cosby spoke outside of it in 1985 during The Cosby Show’s peak in popularity. Today, there are now multiple Ben’s Chili Bowl locations, though the original remains on U Street. Things to try: Ben’s half-smoke, chili-cheese fries, and chili-cheese burger.
- Lincoln Theater — Opened in 1922, Lincoln Theater has featured famous performers such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and Pearl Bailey. The theater closed after the King assassination riots, but opened again in 1994.
- True Reformers Building — Designed, financed, and built by African Americans, the True Reformer Building was completed in 1903 and has served as a Boys Club, the DC chapter location of the National Negro Business League, and, most recently, home to the Public Welfare Foundation. Duke Ellington, who grew up in the neighborhood, played his first paid performance in the building, charging guests an entry fee of 5 cents.
- Cardozo Education Center — A large public high school founded in 1928 whose alumni include J. Edgar Hoover, John S. McCain Jr., and Marvin Gaye.
STOP 2 — Florida Avenue Grill (B)
The oldest soul food restaurant in the world, Florida Avenue Grill opened in 1944. Lacey and Bertha Wilson put all their savings toward purchasing the tiny space on the corner of 11th and Florida Ave, which was about a third of the size it is today. During the riots following King’s assassination, Lacey Wilson sat in front of his restaurant with a shotgun in his hand to ward off any violent visitors. The restaurant was later passed down to the Wilson’s son, and then in 2003 Imar Hutchins purchased it. Things to try: biscuits and gravy, mac n cheese, and their scrapple.
- Howard University — Named after General Otis Howard who founded the university and was Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Howard University was the first biracial university south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The practice of “sit-ins” was pioneered at Howard during the 1940s, decades before the Civil Rights movement gained momentum. Notable alumni and/or professors include Thurgood Marshall, Toni Morrison, Elijah Cummings, and Ben Ali.
- The Industrial Savings Bank — One of the first African American owned banks in the country, the Industrial Savings Bank has been opened since 1913, with the exception of a brief 2 year closure during the Great Depression.
- Bohemian Caverns — John Whitelaw, who also opened the Industrial Savings Bank, would purchase this property in 1926. The ground floor of the building was a pharmacy, which then led downstairs into a speakeasy jazz club that featured performers such as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.
- Lee’s Flower Shop — A family flower shop that opened in 1945, Lee’s Flower Shop is one of three commercial businesses located directly on U Street that has remained open prior to King’s assassination (the others being the Industrial Bank and Ben’s Chili Bowl).
STOP 3 — Oohs and Ahhs (C)
A soul food restaurant opened in 2003, Oohs and Ahhs is a tiny hole in the wall that has been featured in the Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives with Guy Fieri. It is especially popular with the late night crowd as it stays open until midnight on the weekdays and 4am on the weekends. Things to try: sweet yams, collard greens, potato salad, and mac n cheese.
- African American Civil War Memorial — Located just outside of the U Street Metro Station (10th St exit), the African American Civil War Memorial was done in 1997 by Ed Hamilton and honors the over 200,000 United States Colored Troops who fought in the war. Hamilton’s The Spirit of Freedom statue is the focal point, featuring figures of men marching into battle on the front side of the memorial and then imprints of soldiers saying goodbye to their families on the back. A low rise metal wall surrounds the memorial and lists all the names of the those who served.
- African American Civil War Museum — This small yet extremely high quality museum opened in 1999. The exhibits tell the story of African Americans who fought in the Civil War. The museum has a registry of names available to descendants of USCT veterans.
STOP 4 — Habesha Market (D)
Both a market and a restaurant, Habesha Market is located in the heart of “Little Ethiopia.” Washington, D.C. actually has the largest Ethiopian population in the country, with some estimates suggesting as many as 200,000 Ethiopian residents in the metro area of the city. Many Ethiopians first started to move to the D.C. during the civil war in Ethiopia in the 1970s. Initially, most resided in Adams Morgan, a neighborhood that is not too far from U Street. However, as Adams Morgan became much more expensive, many Ethiopians moved to 9th Street in the U Street Corridor. Things to try: sambusa, spicy lentils, and spicy beef stew.
- 7th Street — 7th Street’s grittier atmosphere was much preferred by Langston Hughes, who considered U Street to be much too posh and pretentious. The two streets have always been rather dichotomous, and whereas today U Street has very much been gentrified, 7th Street is still an “up and coming” area of the neighborhood. 7th Street would see some of the worst destruction after the rioting.
- Dunbar Theater — Along with Howard Theater and Lincoln Theater, Dunbar Theater was one of the premiere theaters in the neighborhood. It opened in 1921, but was also forced to close its doors after the rioting. Today, the building is now home to a Wells Fargo, and all that remains of its history is a sign that hangs on the corner.
- Howard Theater — The Howard Theater opened its doors in 1910, but was also shut down after all the looting and increase in crime. After a $29 million remodel, Howard Theater opened once again in 2012. On the roof top, a lighted statue of Duke Ellington is featured.
STOP 5 — The Coffee Bar (E)
Opened in 2012, this hip new coffee shop really speaks to the changing demographics of the neighborhood. Thing to try: the honey badger.
- Capitol Checkers — For $30 a year, checkers aficionados come here to compete against each other. A mural is featured on the east wall of the building. Though less than 20 years old, Capitol Checkers has an old school charm.
- The Thurgood Marshall Center — Formerly home to the first African American chapter of the YMCA, the building has since been renamed after Thurgood Marshall (the first African American Supreme Court Justice and the attorney during the Brown v Board of Education case) as he frequented it during his time as a law student at Howard University. The original location of the YMCA, which was founded by Anthony Bowen in 1853, was on 12th Street. The current building was dedicated by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908.
- Duke Ellington’s Childhood Home — Duke Elligton lived in multiple homes in the Shaw/U Street neighborhood. As his parents were professional musicians, they often encouraged Ellington to pursue music. However, he remained reluctant until being inspired by the Jazz bars located in his neighborhood. He got his start as a composer on U Street, and then would go on to achieve international success.
- Whitelaw Hotel — Another property owned by John Whitelaw, this was the premiere hotel for wealthy visitors to U Street during its heyday.