Since late 2014, the corner of 22nd Street and Ninth Avenue S in St. Petersburg has been home to Chief’s Creole Cafe, a Louisiana-inspired restaurant from husband-and-wife duo Elihu and Carolyn Brayboy.
You can’t miss the building, a bright coral corner fixture displaying a larger-than-life mural of the legendary jazz icon Louis Armstrong in the heart of this historic St. Pete corridor also known as the Deuces.
The Brayboys, who in passing call each other “Mrs. B” and “Mr. B,” grew up in the neighborhood and remember when the same building housed the Sidney Harden Grocery Store, which for decades was the only grocery serving St. Petersburg’s black community.
The restaurant, like many others, took a big hit during the state-mandated coronavirus pandemic shutdown. The owners applied for a small business loan under the federal Paycheck Protection Program but were denied, and it’s part of the reason why the restaurant still hasn’t been able to welcome back dine-in business: There’s just not enough to bring back a full staff.
“To be closed down (during) the pandemic is one thing but the governmental response is another,” Elihu Brayboy said. “It was very difficult. For four consecutive weeks we payrolled out of pocket and we were very much concerned that by that the fifth week, we wouldn’t be able to make it.”
Fortunately, Elihu said, the business has seen a recent uptick, which he attributes both to a strong local following as well as recent support spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Walking inside the restaurant can feel like you are entering someone’s home. To the left, Elihu Brayboy sits at the front desk, making phone calls next to a giant bottle of hand sanitizer. Up ahead there’s the open kitchen, where stacks of to-go orders are boxed before getting bagged in plastic sacks and picked up.
Food is served in to-go containers with plastic utensils. Though the restaurant is currently open only during the day, guests can choose from smaller lunch-sized portions and larger dinner-sized entrees.
Guests can either order and pay by phone or do it in person at the restaurant, where a masked employee will ring you up.
The dishes are inspired by Brayboy’s Louisiana-born mother, Mary Brayboy Jones, and the menu feels like a loose translation of traditional Creole and Cajun fare. Most entrees come with a garden salad — a medley of mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, red onions and a zippy apricot and fresh basil dressing — and sweet, crumbly corn bread muffins.
No New Orleans-themed restaurant would be complete without red beans and rice, and the version here ($14) is a comforting and classic rendition of the creamy red beans framed by a ring of crispy andouille sausage coins. The crawfish etouffee ($15) is made with a tomato-rich gravy plump with crawfish tails and served over white rice. It’s hearty and filling and there’s no skimping on the crawfish, which this time of year are of the frozen variety. During crawfish season (late winter into spring), Brayboy gets his mudbugs fresh from a direct supplier.
You’ll also find them in a big, heaping boil basket called the Bayou Bucket ($33), which is chock-full of corn, snow crab, red potatoes and andouille sausage links. It’s a huge portion, more than enough to feed two people. It’s spicy and messy, so pack plenty of napkins.
Not everything rings traditional here. The jambalaya ($15) is unlike any I’ve ever come across, and without the menu’s disclaimer I would have thought it closer to a gumbo or a stew. Served over rice, the dark, soupy dish carries a slow, tingling heat and is bobbing with spicy sausage, shrimp and chicken — a soothing, rainy-day dish.
In a similar vein, the gumbo ($12) is hearty and warming, full of chicken, andouille sausage and shrimp with a crawfish perched on top. It’s a mild, light-roux version that calls for a splash or two of hot sauce to really make it pop.
Southern and soul food staples include the smoky collard greens ($6), made with collards from Emmanuel Roux’s 15th Street Agrihub nearby, mac and cheese, and sweet candied yams (both $6).
Although the restaurant isn’t yet open for dine-in service, the restaurant has made the courtyard available, and will let diners use the restrooms inside, too.
It’s a lovely patio, which the owners call the pergola, surrounded by ornate wrought iron fencing and flanked by lush plants. Long black-and-white drapes and umbrellas provide some shade while fans whir from either end of the yard, providing a low breeze that helps to offset the hot midday sun.
At night, dangling lights illuminate the space, giving it an almost transportive power: Squint just right, and you might think for a minute you’re in a balmy French Quarter courtyard.
If you go
Where: 901 22nd St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 498-8979; chiefscreolecafe.com
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Courtyard available for evening group bookings by reservation.
Price: Appetizers, $5 to $10; entrees, $11 to $22
Don’t skip: Red beans, Bayou Bucket, corn bread muffins
Take out/delivery: Order by phone or in person at the restaurant. To-go food can be eaten on the patio outside.
Safety measures: Staff wears masks and everything is served in disposable to-go containers. No inside seating is permitted.