Michelin stars and James Beard awards may be globally recognized honors in the culinary world, but they don’t usually appear beside the names of many of the multigenerational Black-owned restaurants across the country. Nevertheless, the significance of these establishments cannot be understated.
America’s Black-owned eateries, from back porch patios to corner diners, neighborhood bistros, iconic dining rooms and everything in between, have long been more than places to enjoy great food.
They have served as essential community gathering places as well as pathways for entrepreneurship and economic empowerment within the Black community. During the civil rights movement they were safe havens for meetings and strategy sessions.
Culinary innovators and industry leaders have honed their skills in these kitchens. And some have played pivotal roles in transforming the diversity and accessibility of both traditional and elevated soul food across racial and ethnic enclaves.
In an industry where an estimated 80% of restaurants close before their fifth anniversary, these traditional, family-owned institutions have stood the test of time, created a legacy and continue to thrive.
So loosen your belt, grab a napkin, and get ready to sink your teeth into these seven tasty cultural treasures that have sat at the heart of the African American gastronomic landscape for generations.
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack
There aren’t many restaurants that can say they’ve been in business for over 100 years. Yet Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack has stood the test — and taste — of time.
The founding father of this three-location, Nashville-area favorite was Thornton Prince, whose womanizing became the stuff of legend. According to the story, Thornton’s steady girlfriend grew weary of his philandering and decided get revenge by lacing his fried chicken with blistering hot peppers and other fiery seasonings. Much to her chagrin, he didn’t burn up; instead, he loved the heat. And the idea for Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack was born.
In more recent years, hot chicken has become a nationwide and, in some circles, commercialized trend. But nothing can hold a candle to the carefully perfected recipe that will go down in history as the original hot chicken.
At Prince’s, guests can order chicken tenders, wings, breasts, legs, quarters, whole birds, chicken salad and chicken sandwiches. Diners should choose their sauce wisely: Heat levels range from Lite Mild to Medium, Hot, X Hot, XX Hot and, finally, XXX Hot.
Sides to accompany the main meal include baked beans, coleslaw, potato salad, mac and cheese, seasoned fries and “Get it Girl greens,” accompanied, of course, by slices of bread and cups of pickles. Pie and cake are available for dessert.
Family owned and operated since the beginning, the restaurants are now operated by Prince’s great niece.
Dooky Chase’s Restaurant
It’s not often that previous iterations of a dining establishment owned by the same family include a lottery ticket outlet and a bar. Yet that is part of the rich history of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans.
Originally opened as a sandwich shop in 1941 by Emily and Dooky Chase Sr., Dooky Chase’s and four generations of owners have played a major role in the gastronomic, artistic, musical and political landscape of the city.
In the early days, Dooky Jr. and his sister were part of a bebop band well known throughout the South. When the area’s blue collar workers struggled to find places to handle their finances because of the Jim Crow laws of the time, the restaurant featured an unofficial check-cashing entity. Years later it also achieved popularity as New Orleans’ first art gallery for African American artists.
At the helm now is Leah Chase, Dooky Jr.’s wife, known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, who has transformed the popular gathering place into one of the country’s first African American-owned fine dining restaurants and the premier restaurant for authentic Creole cuisine in New Orleans.
Menu items include oyster Norman, fried chicken, braised duck, oysters, stuffed shrimp, veal penne, chicken Creole, po’boys, shrimp Clemenceau, gumbo and crab soup, among a melting pot of other delicious options.
Diners here encompass scores of local regulars and tourists, in addition to the growing list of entertainers, politicians, writers, actors and other notable guests.
A dedicated dining areas can accommodate groups of up to 160 people.
Shirley Mae’s Café
Baked “chick’n” and country cornbread “dress’n,” skillet-fried fish with homemade tartar sauce, slow-cooked pork spareribs, Southern fried chicken wings, hot water cornbread, chess pie and jam cake: This is just the beginning of the cornucopia of flavors awaiting groups at Shirley Mae’s Café.
Situated in the heart of Smoketown, the oldest African American neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky, the cafe story is as rich as the history of the community and building location. The edifice dates back to 1880, when it originally housed a tobacco company. It changed hands numerous times over the years, with iterations as a grocery store, a dry goods shop and residential apartments. In 1988, Shirley Mae, the first African American to own the building, opened her namesake cafe here.
Throughout its 30-year history, Shirley Mae’s has been the place for locals and prominent Black Americans to dine on one-of-a-kind, historically authentic Southern dishes made with nothing but the freshest ingredients and “lots of love.” Shirley Mae and all her children are intimately involved in every aspect of the business, and its renown has continued to grow.
“We have been on some food shows, which extends our customer base,” said restaurant manager Warren Simpson. “Regular customers love the wings, meatloaf and ribs. Old-school customers love the chitterlings. Shirley Mae’s is home cooking at a good price.”
They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. That certainly applies to the Davis Café: the exterior is a bit rough around the edges, but the experience inside is worth the visit.
Serving tasty, authentic Southern home cooking in the classic “meat and three” style, the Davis Café has been a neighborhood fixture in Montgomery, Alabama, for decades. Open for breakfast and lunch, the restaurant’s offerings vary on different days of the week.
Depending on when they arrive, groups might choose from oxtails over rice, pork chops with gravy, baked turkey and dressing, fried tilapia and meatloaf. An everyday staple is the signature fried chicken.
Every plate comes with delicious cornbread, and side dish options include steamed rice with gravy, breaded fried okra, purple hull peas, scalloped potatoes, and turnip and mustard greens, just to name a few.
Many of the cafe’s regular patrons suggest having dessert first. To that end you can choose from red velvet cake, potato pie, pound cake, rainbow cake and banana pudding loaded with cookies.
Beyond the eats, the Davis Café is also popular for its excellent customer service, friendly staff and welcoming ambiance.
Gates and Son’s Bar-B-Q
Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas
“Hi, may I help you?” That’s the first thing you’ll encounter at any Gates and Son’s Bar-B-Q restaurant. The ubiquitous greeting is offered — some would say “yelled” — well before guests reach the order counter. Yet it’s one of the things that draws people from all over the world to this family-owned, Kansas City barbecue enterprise credited with elevating a passion for barbecue into a thriving and reputable industry.
Originally founded in 1946 by George W. Gates as Gates Ol’ Kentucky, the restaurant was among the first successful barbecue joints in this venerable cow town. The patriarch of the family is now George’s son Ollie, who apprenticed here throughout his early education and college years and today is a major contributor in the Kansas City philanthropic community.
When Ollie took the reins, the name was changed to its current one. Multiple generations of family members are involved in all operations of the company, and it has grown to six locations on both sides of the Missouri/Kansas state line.
Although primarily known for delicious ribs — slabs, center cuts, and short and long ends — you’ll also find barbecue chicken, sausage, mutton, beef, burnt ends and ham served in a variety of solo and mixed plates and sandwiches. Specialty items like chicken wings and legs, chili and chili cheese fries are available at select locations.
Gates’ distinctive sauce options include classic original, sweet and mild, and extra hot, and fans can purchase them, as well as their dry seasonings, in many national grocery chains and other specialty stores.
Harlem, New York
What started out as a 15-stool, six-booth luncheonette purchased in 1962 from a former employer, has grown into an epicurean dynasty in the world of authentic soul food: Sylvia’s Restaurant.
On Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, the restaurant is named after Sylvia Woods, the family matriarch dubbed the Queen of Soul Food, who has earned international acclaim.
Everyone from politicians to entertainers, actors, international tourists and locals flocks to Sylvia’s regularly to enjoy delightful, carefully crafted dishes. Highlights include Grandma Julia’s cornmeal fried whiting; Carolina-style fried catfish; chicken and waffles; Sylvia’s world famous barbecue ribs with her original Sassy Sauce; down-home fried or smothered chicken; old-school sandwiches with fried chicken or fried whiting; baked chicken; and a few beef, chicken and seafood combo plates.
Sides are the quintessential collard greens, baked macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas, buttered corn and more. And don’t forget dessert: Chocolate, double chocolate, coconut and red velvet cake are among the sweet offerings.
Recognized as a must-visit for foodies, the restaurant has garnered numerous awards and accolades. Several generations of the family still run it and have expanded its offerings over the years to encompass special seating and menus for groups as well as full-service catering and a line of Sylvia’s food products.
Although not a long-standing African American establishment, the Grey Restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, offers a fascinating and worthy perspective on the history of Black food culture.
The restaurant’s name honors its former iteration as a segregated 1938 Art Deco Greyhound Bus terminal. Its proprietors — African American chef Mashama Bailey and Italian business partner Johno Morisano — lovingly and meticulously renovated and transformed the site into what has now been called “an essential American dining destination.”
The contrasts of these unconventional partners’ backgrounds speak volumes, and it is their mission to use the restaurant to inspire conversations around race, culture, class and gender while also offering patrons a unique food, wine and service experience.
On the menu, which combines upscale gastronomic fare and familiar Port City Southern recipes, diners find creative and outstanding dishes that rotate according to the availability of fresh seasonal produce, meats and seafood.
The country pasta with bucatini, pork belly and egg yolk is a fan favorite, as are the crab beignets with blue crab, mascarpone and remoulade; smoked fish with potato rosti, creme fraiche and Oklahoma caviar; and duck liver mousse with red lime marmalade.
The property also includes the Grey Market, a combination of a Southern lunch counter and a New York City-style bodega. Private dining options for groups include the Shower Room, which overlooks the main dining room, and the Boiler Room, which can accommodate up to 10 people. Preset menus can also be provided for parties of more than nine people.