Self-Guided U Street Food and History Tour
Join us as we explore the historic treasures of DC’s U Street corridor. Once known as “Black Broadway,” this neighborhood remains a trove of the capital’s black American history. From the Civil War through the Jazz Age to the race riots of the ‘60s and beyond.
Don’t forget to tag us on social media @freetoursbyfoot when you take this tour! You can share your photos and ask us any questions!
This is a short tour of the food and history of the neighborhood, but if you’re more interested in the history of what was once called “Black Broadway”, take our self-guided audio tour which includes much more of the history from the Civil War to today.
Here is how it works:
- Book an Audio Tour on our Booking Page
- Receive a confirmation email with a .mp3, .pdf, and embeddable Google Map
- Enjoy the tour(s)!
Even if you don’t download any tours, you will still have access to valuable information on sightseeing.
Listen to a sample of our U Street History Tour.
Start: Ben’s Chili Bowl — 1213 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009
End: The Coffee Bar — 1201 S St NW, Washington, DC 20009
Enjoy your self guided tour? Make a donation to help support the guides. You can Venmo @canden-ftbf or Buy Me A Coffee: https://www.buymeacoffee.com/dcbyfoot
STOP 1 — Ben’s Chili Bowl (A)
Opened in 1958 by Ben Ali and his wife, Virginia, Ben’s Chili Bowl is one of the most famous restaurants in all of Washington, D.C.
Ben moved to the US from Trinidad to study dentistry at nearby Howard University.
Ben’s operated at the height of “Black Broadway” so you would often find some of the greats hanging out between sets – Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Redd Foxx.
After Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination in 1968, the U Street Corridor was devastated by riots (which we will talk more about at a later stop). Ben’s was given special permission to stay open past the city curfew in order to provide meals for those trying to restore order.
If you ask anyone what Washington DC specialty is, you’d get a variety of answers but many would be a half-smoke. Now, what is a half-smoke? Well, that depends on who you ask – but it is one of the popular dishes at Ben’s. Some folks in DC say its a sausage that is only half smoked, others say that it is part pork and part beef. Its best had with Ben’s famous chili.
Today, there are now multiple Ben’s Chili Bowl locations, including inside the National’s Ballpark, though the original remains on U Street. It’s a great place to stop in for a bite to eat as much of the interior decor is original.
We start the tour here in case you want to pop in for a bite to eat. Continue to the next stop now or after you pause for a half-smoke. The tour will end one block away at 14th and U Street so you can also easily come back after the tour. When you’re ready to leave Ben’s check out the alley to the left of Ben’s Chili Bowl and you’ll see a mural on Ben’s outer wall.
This is not the first mural here. The first featured Donnie Simpson, Barack Obama, Chuck Brown, and Bill Cosby. In 2017, it was replaced with this mural, showing Muhammad Ali, Michelle Obama, Prince, Wale, Taraji P. Henson, Harriet Tubman, and Roberta Flack. It was painted by DC artist Aniekan Udofia.
If you’re interested in more about the DC street art scene, check out our self-guided tour about DC Street Art and Graffiti (coming soon)
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 1968 riots following Dr. King’s assassination but opened again in 1994.
- True Reformers Building — Designed, financed, and built by black 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.
STOP 2 — Florida Avenue Grill (B)
Florida Ave is located at the edge of the city. Or what used to be. This was originally called Boundary Road and was the border between the federal city of Washington and Washington County. Land spectators purchased up this land because it was the cheap land on the edge of the city.
By the 1940s this was a strip mall, and Lacey Wilson, Sr purchased essentially a hole in the wall with 2 stools. He was a shoe shiner on Capitol Hill and saved his tips to purchase the space. He and his wife, Bertha, would buy two chickens in the morning. Once those were cooked up and sold, they would take the earnings to go to the store and buy two more.
As they could afford, they would buy up the stores next to them to expand. Florida Avenue Grill became a staple in Washington DC and is its oldest soul-food restaurant. It survived the 1968 riots that destroyed other nearby business because Lacey Wilson, Jr, sat in the front booth with a shotgun.
In 2005, the Wilson family sold the Grill to its current owner, Imar Hutchins. Hutchins purchased much of the surrounding property to build a condo building – a sign of the gentrification of the area. He named it The Lacey in honor of the father and son duo who built and grew the grill two chickens at a time.
Because this restaurant is such a key part of the history of the neighborhood and Washington, DC, he kept it the same. You can find turkey sausage and salads now but you can also sample (and we recommend that you do) some of the traditional soul food it’s famous for.
Across the street is the Cardoza Education Campus. Cardoza High School was the high school Marvin Gaye was meant to graduate from – except he left to focus on music and to join the Air Force his junior year. Marvin Gaye was born at the Freedman’s Hospital in 1939 (the building is now part of Howard University Communications building). When he was a student at Cardoza, he formed his first musical group, a doo-wap group, the DC Tones with school friends.
Marvin Gaye would return to DC often for performances, including stopping by Cardoza in 1972 to sing “What’s Going On” but he reportedly hated Washington, DC.
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 black 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 & Museum: The Shaw and U Street Corridor neighborhoods grew organically into a hub of black American prosperity from the aftermath of the American Civil War.Contraband camps such as Camp Barker, the Campbell Hospital, Wisewell Barracks and the Freedman’s Hospital, which later became part of Howard University’s Medical School were located in this undeveloped area of Washington DC. During the Civil War, it became a federal policy that escaped enslaved persons from Confederate statues should not be returned as they could aid the Confederate cause and thus were considered contraband. Many escaped to Washington DC and formed camps and communities in this area.Located just outside of the U Street Metro Station (10th St exit), the African American Civil War Memorial was designed 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 209,145 United States Colored Troops who served.Across the street is the 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. As of 2019, the museum is in the process of moving to a large facility, the Grimke School next door. It is currently housed in the historic school’s auditorium.
A stop an audio tour cannot do justice to the contributions of the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War so we highly recommend a visit to the museum. The museum is open every day and has free admission. You can find out more on their website here: https://www.afroamcivilwar.org/about-us/visit.html
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 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 — This building on the right corner was a multi-use building that had offices, residences, as well as a movie theatre, the Dunbar Theatre, and the headquarters of the Southern Aid Society, one of the oldest Black life insurance companies in the country. It opened in 1921 but was also forced to close its doors after the rioting. Today, 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 premier hotel for wealthy visitors to U Street during its heyday as there was not a luxury hotel that would accommodate black visitors in the area.