Sylvia's Soul Food Brings a Taste of Home to St. Petersburg
Harlem's world-famous Sylvia's Queen of Soul Food Restaurant now has a location in St. Petersburg, on the ground floor of the historic Manhattan Casino on 22nd Street South.
"Good food plays a huge part, but it's the atmosphere around the food," said Dan Mitchell, the executive chef at Sylvia's. "And it doesn't just fill you physically, but when you get finished, your whole soul and everything has just been lifted."
He admits it's a little hard to explain what soul food is.
"Growing up, around holiday time, all the family comes together -- good, bad or indifferent -- it's just family, then there was one person in the family that just made everything alright," Mitchell said. "And typically, it was either mama, grandmother, or sometimes, we call her 'Big Mama.' She had the food laid out, and she has the no-nonsense approach, like, 'sit your butt down and eat.'"
Chef Mitchell said the restaurant is designed to make diners feel at home.
"At Big Mama's house, Big Mama gonna have a nice house, but she's also gonna remember the babies," he said. "So, she can't put out her good stuff, she can't put stuff in their reach, so it's going to be nice, but it's gonna be comfortable."
At the suggestion of macaroni and cheese as a signature soul food dish, Mitchell was quick to point out that it's the preparation of the food that distinguishes it.
"Trust me, Kraft mac and cheese, is not soul food," Mitchell said. "It's cooking noodles and making it all the way from scratch, not out of a package."
The night I visited, I asked the chef what I should order. He suggested I try chitterlings. I had no idea what that was.
"Chitterlings are the intestines of a pig," Mitchell said.
And I asked, why would those would good to eat?
"You know why? Let me tell you something. You're going to need another sheet of paper for this."
He leaned in to the table a little bit more. "Because now we're talking ethnic here," Mitchell went on. "When we were in slavery, the only food we were able to get was scraps, so that's how we became good cooks, because we had to make the best of the garbage."
Some of the things thought of as trash at one time are now in high demand.
"Chicken wings used to be scraps, the turkey neck, used to be scraps, chitterlings were scraps," Mitchell said. "So, that's how we became good cooks, because we had to make the best of the garbage.”
I told Mitchell about a time I tried to make black eyed peas on my own. My only ingredients were a bag of black eyed peas and water.
He offered a recipe -- he said it's not a secret, and it's not complicated.
"You get out what you put in," said Mitchell, who wasn't shocked when I said they didn't taste good. "If you don't put flavor in, you're not going to get flavor out."
Most of the tables at the restaurant were full the night I visited.
Artis Nettles is one of the managers at the new Sylvia's in St. Petersburg. He said the crowds have been steady since the new location opened.
“Sylvia's is a landmark that has been around for over 51 years, and it originated really out of people who moved from South Carolina to New York City, Harlem, and introduced soul food cooking," Nettles said.
As Nettles explained, the new location has historical significance.
"We wanted to marry Sylvia's to a point in the south here that reflected black heritage and that was always respected, so it sits under the Manhattan ballroom casino that's upstairs and that was a place where black entertainers can go and entertain,” Nettles said. “They weren't allowed, back in the day, to play with the white artists in a white auditorium."
The Manhattan Casino was the place for music and dancing from the 1930s until it closed in 1968. It hosted big names like Louis Armstrong, James Brown and Ella Fitzgerald. Now, the ground floor is home to Sylvia's Restaurant.
Tina Kendricks was at Sylvia's with her family for a night out.
In between bites of mixed greens and salmon, she said she likes that the restaurant is close to home.
"It's really nice to finally have some place to go, and not have to go to Tyrone Mall or go out to the Countryside area,” Kendricks said. “It's something right here in our own neighborhood."
By the time I left, I was full from lemonade, fried chicken, black eyed peas and baked macaroni and cheese. I caught some of the infectious laughter from the Kendricks family, and I started to get some of that hard-to-explain stuff the executive chef was talking about.