Restaurant review: Chief's Creole Cafe full of homey food, hospitality

Chief's Creole Cafe, a largely undiscovered gem in St. Petersburg, exudes warmth in its dishes and its charm.
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ST. PETERSBURG

Good manners can be taught. But graciousness? That stuff is tucked somewhere along long strings of DNA nucleotides. Elihu and Carolyn Brayboy drip with it. Visit their 6-month-old Chief's Creole Cafe and they greet you warmly, slide into easy conversation, make you feel special and expertly attend to your needs. It's like being in someone's home for dinner, someone adept at keeping track of a thousand pesky details while maintaining a beatific calm.

The Brayboys are real estate entrepreneurs, renovating and revitalizing buildings in "the Deuces" (a.k.a. 22nd Street S), a historically African-American neighborhood. They painstakingly restored what was once Sidney Harden's corner grocery store and searched for a restaurant tenant who never came.

So they decided to do it themselves.

Two years ago this effort might have been seen as tilting at windmills. Now, though, it feels like straight-up prescience. Sylvia's, 3 Daughters, art spaces, design and retail businesses have popped up along the Deuces, with more on the horizon.

However, once ensconced at one of the ornately appointed tables, restored crown molding and pressed-tin ceilings overhead, one gets the impression that Chief's Creole Cafe is still somewhat underappreciated. The place merits bustle every bit as much as spots along Beach Drive or Central Avenue, but St. Pete diners haven't discovered it yet.

Outside is a lovely courtyard centered with a tinkling fountain and draped with strings of lights; inside features gleaming carved wooden furniture and shimmering golden charger plates. It's formal, but not stiffly so.

The restaurant is named in honor of Elihu's mother, Mary Brayboy Jones, a Louisiana native affectionately nicknamed Chief. And many of the recipes are Chief's: soft cheese grits topped with pan-sauteed shrimp and a ladle of cheesy sauce ($6.95 lunch, $9 dinner), gently spicy Creole gumbo ($7.95, $15), sturdy red beans and rice studded with andouille rounds ($7.95, $12) and tomato-tinged jambalaya capped with a beady-eyed bright red crawfish ($7.95, $12).

Presentations are homey and simple, most dishes arriving in low bowls with a pouf of steam rising from their centers. Despite the fancy setting, this is food that you don't mind getting dirty for: Creole chicken wings ($7.99) are fried and then doused with a sauce that is herbal, salty and seriously spicy, the crunchy chicken skin softening under its ministrations.

There are fat onion rings ($4.99), butter-drippy rounds of garlic bread and the classic pineapple upside-down cake bejeweled with maraschino cherries ($4). These are all best washed down with a sweet tea ($1.99; no liquor, but it's BYOB if you want) or housemade tropical punch ($1.99), a punch we emphatically were told tasted good because "it was made with love." That's a description that fits quite a bit at Chief's Creole Cafe.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

   
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