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Southern spirit at Soleil in Dudley Square

By Devra First GLOBE STAFF  JUNE 28, 2018

Where to Soleil, a Southern-influenced restaurant in Dudley Square, in the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building space that was previously Tasty Burger.

What for Operator Cheryl Straughter used to run Keith’s Place in Grove Hall, known for its soul food and Sunday brunch. Now she’s bringing back its welcoming spirit in a new location.

The scene An L-shaped space with red accents and retro diner-esque touches. People enter from the street, passing beneath a light fixture made from Coke bottles, to order at the counter. There’s a mural on the wall of a Dudley-bound bus. Past a bar area are tables where people have lunch meetings and text while eating mac and cheese and fried chicken. Behind the counter, staffers grill ears of corn and line up bags for takeout orders. In the kitchen, someone is whistling while he works.

What you’re eating In the morning, you’ll find riffs on the egg sandwich, along with omelets, generous plates of eggs and grits with salmon cakes, and more. Sweet potato pancakes, waffles, and hash are here too. Lunch brings sandwiches and salads, but most people gravitate toward the steam table, stocked with fried and barbecue chicken, vegetable sides, and a huge tray of mac and cheese. There are also specials such as shrimp Creole over rice, apricot-ginger glazed fish, and Salisbury steak. Food is served until early evening; full dinner service is coming in a few weeks.

Care for a drink? There’s soda and juice, including something called Keith’s Krush: a blend of orange, apple, and cranberry. Beans come from Atomic Coffee Roasters. Beer, wine, and sangria will soon be on offer.

Overheard Talk of soul food, specials, and the lunchtime scene. “Barbecue or fried, barbecue or fried?” one customer debates. “The shrimp Creole is soooo good,” a staffer tells a woman at the counter, who orders it with a laugh: “See how you had to twist my arm?” Another guest arrives: “Ooh, here comes my favorite customer,” exclaims one employee. Someone tucks into her lunch. “How is it, love?,” a staffer asks. A thumbs-up is the wordless reply.

Southern with a Twist

Longtime restaurateur sees opportunity in Dudley location

By: Yawu Miller (Baystate Banner Senior Editor)

Cheryl Straughter had a 10-year run with Keith’s Place, a popular Grove Hall eatery that she opened in 1996 to bring sit-down meals to the neighborhood.

Following that venture, Straughter began a 12-year odyssey that has in many ways brought her back to where she started.

After closing Keith’s Place, she enrolled in Johnson and Wales University’s culinary arts program, learning the intricacies of cooking and food preparation. She went on to work as a recruiter for the school. When her late mother developed advanced Alzheimer’s disease, she returned to Boston to take care of her, while taking classes nights at Simmons College, where she earned a master’s of social work.

Next, she worked for three-and-a-half years at Future Chefs, a nonprofit that uses food service training to help teens gain academic and professional skills.

When Straughter learned last year that one of the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building’s restaurant spaces, then occupied by Tasty Burger, was soon to be vacant, she jumped at the opportunity.

“When I walked through this space, I felt as though I could make this a restaurant that the community wanted and needed,” she says.

In opening Soleil in the Bolling Building, Straughter is returning both to the food business and to Dudley Square, a commercial district that figured prominently in her childhood.

“My mother loved Dudley,” she said. “We used to go to Woolworths. I remember riding the elevated train, going downtown.”

Straughter sees the bustle returning to the long-struggling district, with several entrepreneurs opening new restaurants in the area this year and Black Market, the weekend bazaar on Washington Street, drawing a diverse crowd of shoppers.

“I love Black Market,” Straughter says. “We are going to feed off of each other. It’s great that people are interested in Dudley. There’s a weave of energy and interest in Dudley.”

Soleil’s soft launch — a time period when the restaurant is open for business, but not publicized — was two weeks ago. Since then, Straughter and her nine employees have been tweaking the menu and improving the workflow.

The food is a mixture of influences that Straughter says defies a label.

“Is it Southern cooking?” she says. “Some of it is. We have fried chicken. But we also have grilled salmon. Yesterday I made collard greens with kale. I have oven-roasted carrots with a honey glaze. It’s not really Southern cooking, but it’s a Southern thing with a twist.”

The food is all cooked from scratch, right down to the cranberry compote that goes into her sandwiches. Straughter avoids using canned or frozen foods, opting for fresh ingredients.

“There’s a certain passion I have about food,” she says. “I really put my heart and soul into a meal.”

The restaurant

In March, she began renovations in the space, doing much of the demolition and painting herself. The layout of the roughly L-shaped restaurant remains largely the same as when Tasty Burger first opened, but Straughter has made some significant changes. She took out two fryers and added in a grill, a charcoal broiler and an array of hot trays for entrees at the service counter. A salad bar is opposite the serving counter. Straughter added upholstery to the booths and ripped out a bench in the back section to create a bar.

She has applied for a beer
and wine license. At the far end of the restaurant, which protrudes into the lobby of the Bolling Building, she added tables and chairs from the Ester restaurant that closed recently in Lower Mills and added cushions. With several wide-screen televisions, the area is perfect for watching sports games, Straughter says.

She financed the restaurant with savings and some help from the Department of Neighborhood Development’s Small Business Center.

In its first few days, Soleil has been busiest at breakfast and lunch times, she says. Straughter hopes a beer and wine license will help draw patrons in after 6 p.m., when Dudley has typically emptied out. When customers start staying after dark, Dudley’s rebirth will be cemented, Straughter says.

“We have to create a destination point,” she says. “That’s what this place is.”

Dudley Restaurant Revival

Local restaurateurs bringing new concepts to Dudley Square

 

When news that Dudley Dough was closing hit the streets in October, some in Roxbury expressed frustration at the slow pace of development in Dudley Square, which now seemed to be moving backward.

Rumors that Tasty Burger would not renew its lease further fueled a sense that recent investments in Roxbury’s commercial hub have fallen flat.

But the silver lining on the cloud of restaurant closings is a bigger story: four new restaurants are in the works, promising to further enliven the square.

“Having more life on the streets at night will help Dudley,” said Dudley Square Main Streets Executive Director Joyce Stanley. “People don’t like to come here at night because there’s not enough life on the streets at night.”

The biggest light in the square, the large restaurant space at the intersection of Washington and Warren streets, may soon be the brightest light in the square. A City Hall source confirmed that the Office of Small Business Development is in talks with a local restaurateur who is looking to open an eatery with live music in the space, which has remained vacant since the Bolling Building opened in 2015.

While the Banner has no details on that development, Stanley said the business could greatly enhance the cultural offerings in the square.

Meanwhile, plans for these restaurants are underway now. »

Soleil

The Tasty Burger spot will likely go dark at the beginning of 2018, but not for long. Restaurateur Cheryl Straughter has plans to open a restaurant in the space, called Soleil, after her granddaughter. She plans to offer food “with a Southern flavor” as well as sandwiches and salads.

“This area is in need of a full-service restaurant,” Straughter said. “A place where people can bring their family or have a business meeting.”

Straughter’s first restaurant business, “Keith’s Place,” opened in a renovated space in Grove Hall in the 1990s, and proved to be popular in the then-down-on-its-heels business district. She’s looking to bring healthy fare to the Bolling Building location, which has considerably more foot traffic, at least during daylight hours.

“There’s a good customer base here,” she said of Dudley Square. “We have to give them a reason to come in.”

Straughter is planning to renovate the space before opening next year. »

119

Roxbury businessman J.D. Nelson plans to open a pizza shop in the space vacated last week by Dudley Dough. The new venture will feature expanded menu offerings, including soups and salads, and will have a full liquor license. The 119 name takes its cue from the Roxbury ZIP code, 02119.

Former Dudley Dough manager Luther Pinckney will step into the same role in 119, which may open as soon as February.

“The concept is a meeting space for the neighborhood,” Pinkney said. “It’s a place where people can gather together. We need more social outlets in this neighborhood. In Dudley, we need to have basic services that take care of the people who live here.”

Pinkney said the menu will feature rotating specials at night.

“It won’t be soul food, not heavy food, but enough to fill your belly,” he said. »

Ethiopian flavor

At the corner of Shawmut Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard, restaurateur Befekadu Defar is planning to open a coffee shop with healthy lunch foods, including vegetarian and vegan options, sandwiches and salads.

Defar started in the restaurant business with a Jamaica Plain eatery called Fasika. Fourteen years ago, he moved his restaurant to Somerville. While he plans to keep that restaurant open, he says he had always wanted to come back to Boston.

“I see a future in Dudley,” he said. “It’s one of the most rapidly changing districts. It has great potential.”

A major draw to his restaurant will be fresh roasted Ethiopian coffee.

“We use the best Ethiopian coffees, which are known for their flavor,” he said. “We get them directly from Ethiopia. We will roast and grind the coffee there.” »

A new Dudley?

Stanley says the new restaurant offerings will help bring more vibrancy and, importantly, more foot traffic to the business district. The live music at the large restaurant space will add to the growing number of cultural offerings in the district.

“There’s a lot going on,” Stanley said, referring to live music and art exhibits at the Haley House Bakery Café and plays, musical performances and other cultural events at Hibernian. “There’s just not a lot of coordination.”

Stanley said coordinating a schedule of cultural events in the Dudley Square area and creating a web page to promote them are important next steps for the Roxbury Cultural District, a group representing the area’s artistic and cultural sites. The Cultural District, which includes Dudley and Eliot Squares, was designated by the Massachusetts Cultural Council earlier this year and is intended to highlight Roxbury’s cultural assets and boost tourism and economic activity.

“We have the pieces of a really good cultural district here,” Stanley said. n

Roxbury Cultural District a Reality

In 1987, members of the Roxbury community including Barry Gaither, founder of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, state Rep. Byron Rushing and others began to lay the foundation for the creation of a Roxbury Cultural District.

The effort was no doubt back-burnered while an under-resourced community battled so many discriminatory practices on many fronts, among them redlining, mortgage scams and displacement.

 

But two years ago, this community-driven initiative was picked up by Madison Park Development Corporation, The Haley House Foundation and The American City Coalition, and a petition was filed to finally establish a Roxbury Cultural District.

This Friday, Roxbury celebrates the exciting new cultural district (there’s one in Fenway and another in the Back Bay) at the Bruce Bolling Municipal Building, one of the district’s newest assets, to raise money for the Cultural District programming.

On Saturday, which coincidentally marks the birthday of human rights activist Malcolm X, whose Dale Street home is within the Cultural District, there will be a free community block party between the historic First Church and the old Blair’s Foodland lot.

The mission of the Roxbury Cultural District is to harness the vibrant resilience of a community that, despite many trials and tribulations, never lost sight of the dream to bring forth the spirit of its history, music, arts and culture and to work for greater economic vitality in its neighborhoods.

The district now has 40 partners, including Dudley Square Main Streets and the Dudley Merchants, with seed money and support from the city of Boston, the Boston Foundation and others.

From Hibernian Hall, now a hub of theatrical events, to the hope for a fitting memorial on Parcel 3 to the late great Elma Lewis, a mentor to so many, to the celebration of our Black veterans who fought in every war starting with the Revolutionary, with the installation of the Gen. Edward O. Gourdin statue in Roxbury’s Gourdin Park and even the possibility of siting the new statue of Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, in the neighborhood they called their second home, the excitement is palpable.

Greater Grove Hall Main Streets, while not in the district, is working on creating an app for a historic walking tour of all of Roxbury, which would surely include Prince Hall Grand Lodge, Muhammad’s Mosque and Franklin Park.

It may even be time to get the book I helped create, “African Americans in Boston: More than 350 Years,” updated and into an app.

People from outside of our city are always amazed by the breadth and depth of Boston’s black history and culture. The Cultural District gives us reason to celebrate Roxbury’s richness, including a vibrant art community, with internationally known artists like Paul Goodnight, Lois Mailou Jones and our own Napoleon Henderson Jones, whose “Roxbury Rhapsody” mural is in the building that bears my husband Bruce’s name.

Working with and for the Dudley Square community to finally realize this dream and connection to economic revitalization is an organization that is one of the area’s best kept secrets, The American Cities Coalition. Low key but effective is how Christine, Charlotte, Carole and the TAMCC crew like to keep their work.

A community based initiative, TAMCC was designed by my dear friend, developer Joseph Corcoran of Corcoran Jennison Cos., who was honored last week with Freedom House’s Champions of Freedom award for his work supporting community growth and development.

At just 1 year old, the new Roxbury Cultural District is in its infancy. It will need ongoing support to nurture it and help it grow.