Although it had been around long before it was given a name, the term “soul food” was first coined in the mid-1960s when “soul” was often used to describe African American culture. Like soul music, it speaks to the hearts of those who consume it, but more than that, it is deeply rooted in tradition and history – an authenticity both soul food restaurants and home cooks strive to convey.
“Soul food/Southern cooking is the storytelling of the Black experience and one of the biggest expressions of Black cooking in America,” said chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson.
Not all Southern food is soul food. Descended from enslaved Africans in the South, soul food is a distinctly African American cuisine. It is one of several traditional Black cultural cooking styles, including Cajun, Creole and low country.
The recipes passed down through generations of African American families are a connection to the resilience and resourcefulness of their ancestors. Chitterlings, fried chicken, candied yams, braised collards and other staples of the soul food repertoire were developed in the kitchens of newly emancipated cooks making the most of what they had. Homegrown crops such as okra, sweet potatoes, greens and beans – most of which were brought to the South during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, were inexpensive and easily accessible, as were game and offal.
”There are a lot of game meats that get forgotten about when it comes to soul food, and they are also a huge part of the experience,” pointed out Samuelsson, who serves classics like pan-fried catfish with black-eyed peas, shrimp and grits and fried yardbird at his AAA Three Diamond Designated restaurant Red Rooster Harlem. “The genius of using neck bones and other parts of the animal is symbolic of a great and creative cook.”
A clear indication of good soul food is the ability to taste the love that goes into it. Delight in everything from cornbread to peach cobbler at these acclaimed Northeast soul food restaurants.
Founded by the late Sylvia Woods, “the Queen of Soul Food,” in 1962, Sylvia’s Restaurant is a Harlem institution. Sylvia’s family continues her legacy, welcoming all walks of life into the restaurant and making them feel at home. Locals, tourists, celebrities, dignitaries and even former President Barack Obama have enjoyed its famous barbecue ribs, Carolina-style fried catfish and fried chicken.
Fellow Harlemite Samuelsson is also a fan. “Since the pandemic, many amazing and historical soul food restaurants have been forced to close,” he said. “A bright example of a soul food restaurant that has survived, and notably one of my favorites, is Sylvia’s in Harlem. Sylvia’s is going on 60 years and is a staple in our community.”
Visit on Gospel Brunch Sundays or Live Music Wednesdays for a taste of the local culture.
New Brunswick, N.J.
Delta’s celebrates the food, music and spirit of the South. High ceilings, exposed brick and lounge seating set the vibe.
The menu features soul standards like smothered chicken and pork chops, barbecue ribs and oxtails, mixed in with twists like a Southern-inspired steamed dumpling starter and mac-and-cheese crab rolls. Spinach dip lovers will appreciate Delta’s version made with collard greens. And for dessert, red velvet cake, banana pudding and sweet potato pie will send you off with a smile.
On weekends, the space is amplified by live bands and DJs. Take in the lively atmosphere at night with a signature cocktail or come and relax on Sunday for brunch.
New Haven, Conn.
While you’ll find all the usual soul foods on the menu at this cozy New Haven restaurant deliciously and lovingly prepared, the fried chicken is said to be among the best in New Haven.
Chef Sandra Pittman, who owns and operates Sandra’s Next Generation with her husband Miguel and family, has perfected her mother’s signature fried chicken recipe. Marinated in spices for fully saturated flavor, crispy and served hot, Colonel Sanders can’t even compete.
Fill up with the church plate, which allows you to choose an entree and four sides. All meals are complemented with cornbread that’s baked fresh each day.
Come to this neighborhood spot to meet up with friends, hang out, sip on a cocktail and enjoy live music and entertainment.
Through different names and owners, the corner of Columbus Avenue has been a landmark for soul food for over six decades. Owner and Boston native Nia Grace has seen to it that the heritage endures at Darryl’s Corner Bar and Kitchen. As co-founder of the Boston Black Hospitality Coalition, she is also a champion of Black-owned restaurants in the city.
Start with the soul food tacos filled with fried chicken or catfish. For a sampling of all your favorites, get the chicken or catfish “Bob the Chef” meal (named for the location’s original restaurant) with your choice of two sides. On Sundays the restaurant offers a fixed-price, all-you-can eat buffet (reduced price for seniors and kids 6-12).
What soul food restaurants do you recommend? Tell us in the comments.