If Walls Could Talk: Chez Billy in Petworth
I just went to Chez Billy (3815 Georgia Ave. NW) in Petworth for the first time the other day to grab drinks and some dinner with a buddy. I know, I’m late to the game, but I’m not nearly as hip as I used to since I now have a Ghost Toddler and another Ghost Baby on the way! This is also why the blog has almost gone dark on new content … sorry!
But, I wanted to get a new piece out, and a real piece this time. Not just a cool old photo. And, it’s been a really long time since I’ve done an “If Walls Could Talk” post. So, here it is.
Who likes ice cream?
The earliest mention of the address was from October 12th, 1929 and it was an advertisement for Minoux Confectioner. It makes me crave dessert just reading it. Macaroons anyone? And, free delivery service!
Now here’s the fascinating historical context that makes me love researching for the blog. On October 12th, the Philadelphia Athletics mounted the biggest comeback in World Series history, overcoming an eight-run deficit to beat the Chicago Cubs 10-8. Two days later, the A’s won the World Series.
On Monday, October 21st, the New York Stock Exchange started to lose significant value, losing 3.7% that day. It bounced back the following day followed by a drop of 6% the following day. On Thursday it dropped another 2%, but that was limited by investment bankers, led by J.P. Morgan, propping up the market buy buying. When the next week arrived, October 28th was Black Monday with a drop of 12.8%. Black Tuesday would plunge another 11.7%.
Only two weeks after this ice cream advertisement, the country was plunged into the dark abyss of The Great Depression.
How about some crabs or lobster?
Fast forward to May 16th, 1938 and the location is now a seafood restaurant called Kushner’s (formerly Mueller’s). In fact, the following day was the grand opening on a Tuesday at 8:00pm.
Five firemen overwhelms by restaurant fire
The address shows up again on Christmas Day 1947 when a restaurant fire at Kushner’s chased 12 upstairs tenants out of the building, and overwhelmed five firemen fighting the blaze. They were overcome by smoke and were treated on the scene.
The fire began around 1:45 in the morning, somewhere in the basement of the building, and rapidly destroyed the first floor, which collapsed.
The building remained Kushner’s restaurant through most of the 1950s. In 1957 the restaurant had exchanged hands and became Simpson’s seafood restaurant.
Potent political forum
An interesting article in The Washington Post from April 5th, 1964, talks about Billy Simpson’s restaurant as being “the seat of the elite” in Washington, DC.
Below is an excerpt from the piece.
Billy Simpson’s Restaurant serves food and drink just like it is supposed to,but among Washington’s Negro elite Billy’s main course is politics.
The chances are that any issue of political importance to Negroes here is fully debated — and possibly settled — at Billy’s long before you hear about it.
Billy Simpson’s, at 3815 Georgia ave. nw., thus is the home base for one of the town’s most potent political forums, and also is a haven for African diplomats.
“Charter” members of the informal forum include Simpson himself, Rep. Charles C. Diggs (D-Mich.); Ed Sylvester of the Labor Department’s international affairs staff; Griffin Davis, USIA staffer; Bob Kitchen of the AID central office; Sam Westerfield, Treasury Department economist, and Chuck Stone, former editor of the Afro-American.
Simpson is extremely proud of the relationship he established with the African diplomatic corps, and it is in their honor that he opened the plush upstairs Ebony Table room, with its Gold Coast bar and overhead map of the African continent.
Guests at the room’s opening last April included 11 African ambassadors or their representatives as well as a number of Congressmen.
Billy Simpson died in 1975 and his life was celebrated in a piece by The Washington Post as the owner of the “Washington institution [that was a] mecca for black politicians and African diplomats.” Simpson had died at 61 years old while in Colorado Springs where he was witnessing the promotion ceremony for General Daniel James Jr., the first African-American general to wear four stars, becoming commander of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD).
The restaurant kept going through the early 1970s and an interesting article shows up in the paper from 1971 where the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, over 50 supporters, including Coretta Scott King, where evacuated from the restaurant by a bomb threat on the night of Thursday, January 7th.
By the 1980s, the building had changed over to become a Caribbean restaurant named Kaieteur. Upstairs was a disco with flashing lights, a dark bar, and a “very American music,” according to a Washington Post review. The restaurant was named for Guyana’s Kaieteur Falls.
There aren’t a lot of mentions of the building in the newspapers after the early 1980s, until it shows up when Chez Billy arrived at the location.
Go check out Chez Billy this weekend. Sit at the bar and tell them Ghosts of DC sent you. Oh, and heres what the building looks like on Google Street View.