Back in the Day

Back in the day, soul food restaurants offered items such as pig feet on their menus. — submitted photo

I was brought up on foods that were indigenous to Black folk. Most of you are familiar with these dinner foods: fried chicken, potato salad, sweet potato casserole with marshmallows, macaroni and cheese, cornbread, biscuits or rolls and, of course, collard greens.

For breakfast, the selection would include eggs with cheese, grits, home fries, scrapple, sausage, pork bacon and biscuits. When I am not eating at home, I often end up eating at one of my favorite soul food restaurants.

My choices, however, are rather limited. While I know that there are other soul food restaurants in and around the city, I end up at Relish on Ogontz Avenue in West Oak Lane or Champagne Restaurant on Chelten Avenue in East Germantown. If I venture into the Center City area and soul food is on my mind, I end up at Warmdaddy’s, where I can not only dine on tasty soul food, but also enjoy live blues music.

On visitphilly.com, identified as an “Official Visitor and Travel Site,” it contains what is described as a comprehensive list of Philadelphia’s “best mouthwatering delights.” Under the heading of “The Best Southern and Soul Food in Philadelphia,” it states, “Nothing more satisfying than a plate of down-home eats. Thankfully, Philly’s dining scene is steeped in southern and soul flavors, rich in catfish, jerk chicken, macaroni and cheese and more.”

It further notes, “ Whether it’s gourmet spin or turkey wings, a zesty bowl of jambalaya or a slice of sweet potato pie, hearty goodness abounds at the region’s soul, southern and Cajun eateries.” It goes on to present a guide of what claims to be the best southern and soul food eateries in Philadelphia.

The three soul food restaurants I identified above as my favorites are included on this list, and here are a few others. Ms. Tootsie’s Restaurant Bar and Lounge, Soul Food Café, Denise’s Soul Food, GiGi and Big R, Chef Ken’s Café, Butter’s Soul Food, Percy Street Barbecue, Wishbone, Rex 1516, and the listing goes on. You can go online and search for soul food restaurants in the city today, and a wide number of soul food restaurants other than those listed will appear.

If you are interested in viewing a more comprehensive list, visit philadelphia.menupages.com. Interestingly, I have never heard of many of the restaurants listed on both of these sites. Nor do I know if these restaurants are in business today. One thing is clear, these restaurants were not around in the past. So, when hungry, do you crave the soul food restaurants that we enjoyed immensely, back in the day?

I shall always remember my days as a young professional working in Leon Sullivan’s Opportunities Industrialization Center headquarters located at 1225 North Broad St. But, I also have fond memories of our lunch hours when many of us would walk up Broad Street to Oxford Avenue for lunch at The Ebony Lounge.

Do you recall that it was located in the basement of the Chesterfield Hotel? I have vivid memories of eating here; the cheeseburgers were simply outstanding! If you ate lunch or dinner at this establishment, you may recall that it served alcoholic beverages. Some of Philadelphia’s well-known Black figures could be found in this restaurant. Attorney and civil rights activist Cecil Moore appeared to be a fixture at this restaurant. Many of the rhythm-and-blues stars could also be found in the Ebony Lounge when performing at the Uptown Theater, as the Chesterfield Hotel provided for their accommodations when on the road.

If you ate at The Ebony Lounge then I know that you found your way a few blocks further north on Broad Street to Columbia Avenue, now Cecil B. Moore Avenue, to have breakfast at Ida’s Restaurant. If you ask anyone that was around during the 1950s and 1960s, whether they actually ate at this restaurant or not, they could tell you about Ida’s rolls — this restaurant was known for its rolls.

While Ida’s was located in North Philadelphia, people came from everywhere to enjoy its delicious meals. One of my co-workers told me that he loved this restaurant because all of the food was freshly cooked. Unlike some restaurants, they did not purchase their rolls, pies, cakes and other food products from some other establishment.

The great thing about these soul food establishments and others that were operating back then reflects the thread that runs through many of my columns; the prospect for Blacks to operate their own businesses; the need for Blacks to create jobs and to keep and circulate monies within their communities, a practice that segregation fostered, back in the day.

No discussion regarding places where we obtained soul food can ignore the Trott Inn, the Black-owned restaurant located at 50th and Folsom streets, in my old West Philadelphia neighborhood. Trott Inn was “the place” back in the 1950s and 1960s.

My July 9, 2007, column was devoted entirely to the Trott Inn. From all accounts, as noted in that column, the Trott Inn was a restaurant that made all of us proud. It was immaculate, considered first-class by many and located right in the neighborhood. The service was efficient and more importantly, the food was outstanding. Some of my friends recall the Trott Inn for its hot rolls and its delicious chicken soup. All of the soul food served there was outstanding and the prices were very reasonable. These prices were reasonable enough to keep church and social organizations holding their gatherings in this restaurant. Now, you must know how funny brothers are when taking their dates out for dinner. Well, Trott Inn had to be one of the more acceptable soul food eating establishments as several of my close “bourgeois” friends told me that they proudly took some of their favorite ladies there for Sunday dinner, back in the day, as their dates were always a great success.

Not too far from Trott Inn, and within walking distance, was another soul food restaurant frequented by many in the West Philadelphia area. Located on the corner of 49th and Haverford was Green’s. A good friend remembers this place well as he observed it being built when he was a teenager. While he does not remember all of the meals served there, he definitely recalls its breakfast foods. For my friend and countless others that patronized Green’s, their biscuits were the best.

Not far back in the day, a restaurant at 52nd and Spruce streets stands out because of one of our former presidents. Most people who were around during the era of President William Jefferson Clinton know that the name of this restaurant is Big George’s. Whenever President Clinton visited Philadelphia, he found his way to Big George’s and even as the president of these United States, Bill Clinton made himself at home. Those that patronized Big George’s claimed that this restaurant served the best breakfast in Philadelphia. The restaurant’s “regulars” attest that the place was difficult to get into on Sundays because of the crowds. I am also told that once inside, one had to wait in line to be seated. While breakfast was a big draw, those that I know and regard as legitimate bakers claim that Big George’s had the most outstanding desserts. Big George’s reputation was enhanced by his benevolent spirit; during the Thanksgiving and Christmas season, Big George fed the homeless.

Philadelphia had many more soul food restaurants in the past. Interestingly, Ocean City which is now the Bottom of the Sea located on Lancaster Avenue was a favorite of many. Dell’s, Punchey’s, the Postal Card, and Miss Ann’s are just a few from the past that come to mind. Did anyone eat at Ms. Ethel’s in West Philadelphia? Our bar restaurants, such as Richard’s Lounge in Mt. Airy cannot be ignored.

One of my dear and close friends tells a story of taking a mutual friend to Nellie’s Restaurant for some soul food. Upon being seated, his friend looked at the menu and asked Ms. Nellie if there was anything light he could have to eat. She responded in a manner that could only come from a sister. With one hand on her hip (you know that only sisters can do this effectively), she said, “Look, if you want something light to eat, you need to go find a white restaurant for your meal.”

A good friend told me that he could tell a good soul food restaurant by the signs on the wall designating the foods being served. He claimed that misspelled words, such as “pig feet” instead of “pig’s feet” or “tatoe salad” rather than “potato salad” were clear evidences that he was in store for an outstanding soul food meal.

In the future, if you have a craving for turkey wings, pork chops, short ribs, oxtails, spare ribs, pickled watermelon rind, corn on the cob, peach cobbler, banana or bread pudding, take your pick from the restaurants listed on the sites identified in this column. Rest assured, however, what will be offered and what you purchase will not bode well in comparison to those soul food meals purchased at the soul food restaurants that were around, back in the day.

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at backintheday@phillytrib.com or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 South 16th Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19146

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