ST. PETERSBURG — "Hello and welcome to Sylvia's," the host said.
Mike Singleton and his wife, Felicia, wandered into Sylvia's Queen of Soul Food restaurant Saturday afternoon, not realizing it was opening day.
They sat on a red cushion in the foyer. Above them hung a picture of President Barack Obama with his teeth wrapped around a chicken leg at the original location in Harlem. Al Sharpton sat next to the president, staring with a face that seemed to say, "Whoa, slow down there."
Mike, 45, laughed when he thought of that.
The host told the couple it would be 10 minutes. They had already waited 20.
"They should have more staff," Felicia, 41, said.
The restaurant was hopping. The only tables that weren't full had been reserved.
After more than eight years of planning and $2.8 million in taxpayer money to renovate the restaurant's home, the Manhattan Casino, Sylvia's opened Saturday. The success of the venture rests on the satisfaction of the Singletons and others like them.
As they waited Saturday afternoon, Felicia's legs bounced; Mike craned his neck in agitation.
"They must be short-staffed," he said.
The St. Petersburg couple admired the interior — chocolate-colored wood floors, mirror black light fixtures — modern, yet warm. Felicia raised her brows in approval.
Across from them the wall was wrapped in a blurry picture of the original location. This new site is the only one outside Harlem.
The nonprofit Urban Development Solutions, run by Larry Newsome, courted restaurant owners and spent a year negotiating a deal with the city to open this location.
Mayor Bill Foster and other city leaders believe new developments like Sylvia's and a nearby Walmart will revitalize Midtown.
"Singleton," the host called.
Mike ordered a Diet Coke, Felicia a sweet tea, and the waiter served corn bread like mother made.
Chicken livers. Smothered chicken. Barbecue ribs. Okra. Candied yams. Collard greens. This is soul food, said the Singletons.
Mike ordered pork chops; Felicia had collard greens and fried chicken.
"Mmmm, greens are good," said Felicia, a call center manager. "What do you think?"
"Delicious," said Mike who works as a safety inspector.
A man who works with UDS stopped at the table and talked to the couple. He said the next move was to build an attraction to keep kids occupied. Maybe a laser tag facility, he mused. Mike and Felicia, who grew up nearby, thought it was a great idea.
For dessert Mike had yam pie and Felicia had a banana pudding cake the waiter said was so tasty it turns people into animals.
The plates empty, stomachs satisfied, Felicia asked, "Would you come back?"
"Yeah," Mike said. "That was delicious, I'll definitely be back."