It's been a long time coming. The Manhattan Casino, once the heart of the city's African-American community, was purchased by the city in 2001 for $395,000. The city restored it with $2.8 million in taxpayer money. It courted well-known African-American restaurants like Sweet Georgia Brown of Detroit for the building's first floor, eventually settling on Sylvia's soul food of Harlem, N.Y. Sylvia Woods, the "Queen of Soul Food," died at age 86 last year, but her recipes for fried chicken, peach cobbler and corn bread live on in the attractive restaurant that opened Nov. 9.
The project had many advocates, from Mayor Bill Foster to Woods' eldest son, Van, to Larry Newsome and his nonprofit Urban Development Solutions (which will follow up with a second franchised Sylvia's location in Fort Myers). And since its opening, city officials and Midtown boosters have kept the place hopping.
But will it be the kind of soul food landmark that the Harlem Sylvia's has been for more than 50 years? It seems unlikely thus far.
The food is just fair, very little of it memorable or vibrant. The nation has been swept up in a Southern food renaissance the past few years, foods of the South being elevated and reinvented with contemporary tastes and au courant ingredients in mind. Top honors — James Beard Awards and the like — have been bestowed on this new spate of Southern restaurants, many of them not even in the South. Is it fair, then, to bring these heightened expectations to a new soul food restaurant?
Of course, this prompts the question: Just what is soul food and how is it different from Southern food? Soul food is rooted in the African-American community, much of it the down-home vittles of the rural South. But it's not entirely accurate to say that Southern food is the larger category, as in all soul food is Southern food, but not all Southern is soul.
Soul food is also what many urban Northeastern African-Americans grew up with. Maybe suburban Midwesterners, too. So geography doesn't matter much — it's more of an ingredient thing. It's a cuisine born of scarcity (as so many beloved cuisines are): beans, greens and cornmeal, richness provided by pork (often the odd bits like necks, feet and ears), lots of salt and hot pepper sauce from Louisiana or the West Indies.
So, it's grandma, maybe great-grandma food. Fine, but food availability is different now. At Sylvia's, the peaches in the peach cobbler and the yams in the candied yams taste like they come from a can. The banana pudding and the dumplings taste like they come from a mix. The buttered corn tastes like it was frozen and the black-eyed peas (Wed.-Sun.) and lima beans (Mon.-Tues.) are stewed so long and are so mushy it's hard to tell whether they came from dried, canned or fresh beans.
The young 150-seat restaurant aims to please. You are greeted warmly in a clean, spare dining room with red banquettes, gray walls and wide banks of windows. Warm corn bread (different every visit) is whisked tableward and tooth-achingly sweet iced teas get refilled promptly. Once you've ordered, food often arrives instantly (to me signaling that very little is made to order), but then there may be service stutters and lags. That's easy stuff to work out for a new venture.
The bigger question is does Sylvia's fill a niche that will drive customers to a part of town not known for its restaurants? The traditional collards ($3.25 or $4.99 for a large order, but free as a side with most dishes) are lush with their smoky pork-scented pot liquor, and a passel of chicken livers sauteed with peppers and onions and then ladled with brown gravy ($6.95 as appetizer, $9.95 as meal) make a delightful dish seldom seen around here. Ditto the crunchy, moist fried catfish ($12.95).
But the burger ($8.95) served with limp sweet potato fries, a generous wedge of meatloaf ($9.95) and even the fried chicken (served as a whole leg at lunch, $7.95) have a long way to go to be competitive with St. Petersburg's top offerings. The city has done much to support this Midtown revitalization project, but at the end of the day, the success or failure of any restaurant, regardless of cuisine, hews closely to what is on the plate.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.