Fast food chains have always dominated Pitkin Avenue, Brownsville’s primary commercial street. So this month’s grand opening of the neighborhood’s first full-service, black-owned soul food restaurant in years was greeted as a moment of pride by the community.
Customers, employees and business people along the strip see the opening as a sign of progress, an antidote to the two dozen rental signs lining the rest of the block in an area with historically limited dining options.
“This is important to me personally,” said Joanna Joseph, a staffer at the new Magic Soul Food Restaurant. “The area itself is going under, not over.”
“It’s like we’re bringing soul food back,” she added.
When asked when they last remembered a restaurant with plush booths, home cooking, and the potential staying power, customers answered in unison: never.
Pierre, who has been eating at Magic Soul Food almost every day in the past week, said the closest full-service restaurants are in Bedford Stuyvesant— a walk he said he took weekly, just to take a break from fast food.
“We need more restaurants like this,” he said. “Fast food owners aren’t investing in the community. They take the money and run.”
Until now, eating on Pitkin Avenue meant a stop at one of the welter of pizzerias and fried chicken shops, including Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, and Popeye’s. While many of these places offer limited seating, all operate as fast food dining establishments.
Now, many community members feel that Magic Soul Food may be providing an alternative: a restaurant that will reinvest in the community, acting as both a healthier eating establishment and a venue for safe nightlife activities.
Owner Shawn Williams hopes to keep Magic Soul Food open late on weekends for comedy and karaoke nights until 2:00 am, and will be applying for a liquor license. Currently, no neighborhood establishment provides these services.
Even without these features, Brownsville has reason to celebrate the new venue. Magic Soul Food is the only sit-down, family-operated restaurant on Pitkin Avenue, and residents claim it to be the first viable black-owned restaurant to open in Brownsville—a community that is over 80 per cent African American—in at least thirty years.
“Every soul food restaurant I’ve been to is in and out,” said Chris Darby, 19, at the opening. Here, he said, “you get to sit and have a nice time.”
Williams’ mother taught him all of the recipes he uses in his restaurants, and came to his aid on his first day in the kitchen. She originally learned them growing up in South Carolina, Williams said.
“She cooked seven days a week, no matter what,” Williams said. “All holidays—she never got a break.”
Among the classic dishes served at Magic Soul Food are chicken served southern-style fried, down home BBQ or smothered; home baked mac and cheese, southern collard greens, sweet corn on the cob and down home candied yams. Grits and pancakes are offered for breakfast.
Williams, who is also head chef, invested $175,000 to start the new venture, following on his success in restaurants of the same name in Bedford Stuyvesant and Ocean Hill.
“It’s all about location. African American people love soul food, so it’s a great location for that,” said Rodelle Mallory, as she prepared the restaurant’s first batch of macaroni salad.
Having succeeded twice before, Williams’ confidence may prove an asset as he begins his most ambitious project yet.
“I’ve been wanting to come here for a while now, but when you come here you definitely have to have it together,” Williams said. “I’ve been coming to Pitkin ever since I was young. There was no place to eat… there was no place you could actually sit down and enjoy a meal.”
Magic Soul Food Restaurant is located on 1546 Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, (347) 663 – 9600.