Interview and photos by Alex Rego
At the corner of Kenyon Street and Georgia Avenue NW sits humble and historic Morgan’s Seafood. And outside Morgan’s Seafood sits Romeo Morgan; greeting each and every passerby.
“It’s easier to say HELLO than it is to say HELL-NO,” Romeo touts.
We sat down over a bowl of his aunt’s venison chili to discuss the history of Morgan’s, his plans for the future, and his views on the neighborhood.
Romeo says Morgan’s Seafood, in its eighty-third year of business, is the longest standing black owned business in the District. Started by Romeo’s great-uncle Maurice Morgan; Romeo has been around the business since he was a kid, but officially took over twenty years ago. And he says no, despite the neighborhood rumors, Romeo was NOT adopted.
Everything available at Morgan’s Seafood is fresh. Everything is bought fresh, cooked fresh and served fresh. Even the sauces are made on site. He refuses to use anything out of a can or use any artificial preservatives. In order to cater to vegetarians he has eliminated the use of meat in his vegetable recipes. According to Romeo the number one sellers are the crab cakes and fried shrimp, but his favorite is the fried trout.
“We have a special blend batter that is made for us, along with the oil that I have perfected over the years; what that does when we fry the fish is it doesn’t give it that oily taste. And the batter is a nice light batter so it actually allows all the natural flavors of the fish, or whichever seafood we are cooking, to stay in the food rather than frying it out of the food into the batter.”
(Editor's note: the steamed crabs are also delicious.)
As President of the Georgia Avenue Business Alliance (GABA), Romeo fights for the historic and culturally significant aspects of Georgia Ave. and the surrounding areas. He uses his experience as a teacher, a shop owner, a construction worker, a mechanic, a photographer and a volunteer to help mold the potential of businesses in the area. Working alongside the Georgia Avenue Community Development Task Force, the Alliance has been able to help over one hundred small businesses in the area get grants for renovation. He also helped with the Georgia Avenue WinterFest last year, attended by over three hundred people.
“We are all about trying to bring the community together, and making sure that small businesses can survive in the city without big business and developers buying everybody out.”
However, the city doesn’t seem to be on his side; he said there have been several developments in the last few years aimed at making it hard for current owners in the area to profit from their businesses. For example, he said a street sign talking about the history of the area and specifically the restaurant (depicting Maurice Morgan) was taken down without consulting or even notifying Romeo.
“The history is going to be here whether the sign is up or not,” Romeo declared. That is certainly true glancing at the walls decked with pictures and old documents. The best thing you can do as a member of the Columbia Heights community, according to Romeo, is to not get engrossed in what is shiny and new; instead invest in your neighbors and be successful together. Give your business to those who have earned it, not by being new and hip, but by lasting decades building upon family recipes and the history of the city. Hold the city accountable for whom it gives its grants and permits to.
When I asked him about all the developments and changes around Columbia Heights in the last decade or so he replied frankly, “It doesn’t matter to me [if you are] black or white, the only problem I have with some of the new residents is that when I speak to them, a lot of the younger ones look at me like why the h*** are you talking to me?!?”
People entering the community without having respect for those who built it is a major pet peeve to the guy who hopes his superlative would be “Friendliest Neighbor in the City.”
His message to the youth of the neighborhood is to not let the attitudes of some affect your own attitude about the community. While there is no excuse for ignorance, it’s even worse to let that turn into hatred.
“My thing is, God said I’ll give you love and joy everlasting. If you don’t share your love and joy with people, nobody will ever know it. Some people may be having a bad day and just saying hello with a smile can change that.” Romeo said many of his customers and friends come from these exchanges; He’s even had a woman tell him that he was the reason she decided not to end her life that day. “You have to treat people the way you want to be treated; if you want joy, you have to give joy.”
Not only has he witnessed a change in demographics, with that has come a change in spending habits. Many of the younger people moving into the neighborhood don’t go out during the week. They would rather save their money and spend it at the bars on the weekends. He says the community used to eat out a lot, supporting the small businesses in the area. This means a change in hours of operation for those businesses that can handle it. Changing from weeknight dinners to late night munchies.
“Growing up, this was a whole different neighborhood. Anything you wanted you could get on Georgia Ave. And now what do you see? A bunch of vacant buildings.”
Despite his roots in the city, he calls himself a “country boy” because of his love for fishing and hunting. He also has a second residence in Marlboro, MD, where he raises chickens and ducks. On the property is a kennel that he uses to house rescued dogs; rehabilitating up to sixteen dogs at a time taken out of shelters and eventually given to good families.
He can’t escape to the country but once or twice a week, but the lifestyle has inspired him to open up a new Morgan’s on the water in Galesville, MD, at 1004 Main Street. It will be half liquor store, half restaurant. And while the liquor store will be opening up in a few months, Romeo has big renovation plans for the restaurant side that will keep it closed until about September. Romeo plans to have a shuttle bus service to take DC residents to the new location overlooking the yacht harbour. He wants to give community members the chance to escape the city every now and then. But for now, your freshest seafood is right around the corner on Georgia Avenue; and it comes with free conversation and a smile.
“Morgan’s is here; we are not going anywhere; we sell fresh seafood, fresh food. Come in and try some! Have a cold beer while you’re at it!” he chuckled.
Morgan's is open 11am-12am Monday through Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays until 2am.
Upon his request Romeo and I took a selfie together; I encourage you all to go in and take your own selfie with him. #meetyourRomeo #MorgansSeafood #SupportGABA