July 29, 2021

Connecting Food, History, and Place by Backing Historic Small Restaurants

In May 2021, in partnership with American Express, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded 25 restaurants over $1 million through the Backing Historic Small Restaurants Grant Program. The restaurants are among the hundreds of historic and culturally rich restaurants across the United States that have suffered huge losses from the COVID-19 pandemic.

American Express and the National Trust conducted a nationwide search to find these beloved, minority-owned restaurants to help them update and preserve their exterior physical spaces and online businesses. Now, we’re showcasing the recipients’ diversity of cuisines, spanning across regions and cultures—hopefully inspiring you to pay them a visit.

“We are honored to play a role in supporting these historic small restaurants that have served our communities for decades.”

Jennifer Skyler, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, American Express, and Chair of the American Express Foundation.

19th and Early-20th Century

Exterior of a tavern building painted blue with a gold sign. In the foreground, though unreadable, is the outline of an historic marker.

photo by: CaptJayRuffins via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0

Historic Neir's Tavern in New York City

Historic Neir's Tavern, New York City

As the oldest restaurant on the list, Neir's Tavern is "The Most Famous Bar You've Never Heard Of." Founded in 1829, the restaurant still has the original pre-Civil War bar counter made of the banned wood Honduran Mahogany. It is also one of the few old drinking establishments in the country that has been in operation in the exact location for its entire history. It also is the last historical landmark in the same area as the most famous horse racetrack in the United States in the 1800s, the Union Course Racetrack.

The establishment has been featured in many films like Goodfellas and Tower Heist. Jamaican immigrant Loycent Gordon, the current owner of Neir’s, felt inspired to give back after moving to the States to get a formal education and pursue the American dream. Now, he is keeping American history alive through the preservation of the restaurant, where all customers can not only enjoy a nice drink but also be a part of its 191-year history.

The grant will help update, replace, and refinish furniture and appliances in the restaurant.

Baker's Keyboard Lounge, Detroit

Acclaimed as the world's oldest jazz club, Baker's Keyboard Lounge has been an anchor to Detroit’s Sherwood district since the 1930s. The establishment has received visits and performances from some of the biggest artists of the 20th century, including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, and many more.

The community is proud of Baker's long, successful history, and the lounge plans to serve the city with great music, great food, and an excellent time for many more decades.

The grant will help the historic lounge upgrade particular needs such as the venue and payroll.

Maneki Restaurant, Seattle

Taking a trip to the northwestern corner of the country, Maneki Restaurant is one of the oldest restaurants on the list. Turning 117 years old in 2021, the historic establishment has been serving customers in Seattle's Japantown since 1904. It has survived many significant events such as the Spanish Flu, two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the Japanese community's return from internment camps.

The restaurant is known for its savory sukiyaki and also offers one-of-a-kind recipes and dishes such as shrimp tempura rolls, "big mouth" rolls with crab sticks and sweetened fish flakes, and ume shiso rolls with sour plum paste. Maneki offers a dining experience where generations of families and professionals visit to enjoy great conversations and share memorable stories. Maneki takes pride in being a family-oriented restaurant that offers excellent customer service and unconditional support to residents, proving why the establishment has stayed in business for over 100 years.

The restaurant will use the grant to add to its "curb appeal" and enhance its building exterior to serve the community better, increase visibility, and amplify its brand identity.

La Posta de Mesilla, Mesilla, New Mexico

In 1939, Katy Griggs Camunez created a "little chile joint" with four tables on a dirt floor and no running water, with her mother preparing meals from century-old recipes. The chile joint is now known as the historic La Posta de Mesilla, located in a 150-year-old adobe building and run by Katy's great-niece, Jerean Camunez Hutchinson. The landmark restaurant serves authentic New Mexican dishes and is a favorite dining spot for locals, visitors, and famous personalities.

More than 80 years later, the La Posta de Mesilla staff continues to carry on Katy's legacy through community outreach, excellent customer service, delicious cuisine, and the finest margaritas. The La Posta adobe compound is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The owners will apply funds towards exterior repair to the building and update its customer services and product services.

Kegel's Inn, Milwaukee

Kegel's Inn is one of the two remaining German restaurants in the working-class community of West Allis in Milwaukee. The original German settlers who offered their skilled beer brewing to the area throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s inspired the family-owned restaurant's identity. Kegel's Inn’s hand-painted murals, original mahogany bar, and hand-tooled woodwork have remained the same since 1924.

Kegel’s stands out from other restaurants because it proudly showcases the community's collective heritage through its old-world cooking methods, generations-old recipes, and authentic decor.

Kegel’s will use the financial support towards sign restoration, exterior landscaping, expanding outdoor accommodations, and more.

Chinatown Garden, Washington, D.C.

Chinatown Garden holds an important place in the nation’s capital by providing traditional banquet-style dining and takeout with delicious Chinese cuisine; quality, fresh ingredients; and excellent customer service, welcoming both D.C. natives and tourists alike.

The restaurant will use the grant to update its street appearance and offer space for creative community readings and storytelling with small dining.

Tex Miller's Hamburgers, Cameron, Texas

Tex Miller’s Hamburgers has been serving the city of Cameron, Texas, for the past eight decades. Burgers are made fresh to order on a 1950s-era grill with fresh ground beef balls that are then smashed on the grill with a concrete trowel. The small restaurant has been happily serving the community since 1937. Customers drive miles to enjoy a Tex Miller juicy burger amid fond memories and good times.

The grant will help the restaurant with several repairs and maintenance to its building, such as paint work, windows, lighting, signage, and more.

Mid-20th Century

Close up of a sign that says Dooky Chase's since 1941. There is an lantern hanging off the sign with a metal frame. The words are black on a white background and attached to a brick building.

photo by: Gwen via flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Dooky Chase in New Orleans

Dooky Chase Restaurant, New Orleans

Tourists cannot visit NOLA without stopping to indulge in savory, Creole cuisine from Dooky Chase, a family-owned and operated culinary landmark that has become a pillar of New Orleans.

Founded by Emily and Dooky Chase Sr. in 1941, the historic establishment has lived through significant events such as the Civil Rights movement and Hurricane Katrina. Many celebrities have stopped by to dine at Dooky Chase over the decades, including Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Quincy Jones, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Thurgood Marshall, James Baldwin, and many more. It continues to be the premier place and community anchor for enjoyment, entertainment, civil rights, and culture in New Orleans.

The Small Restaurants grant will give the 80-year-old restaurant building a facelift with exterior projects such as painting, light installations, and landscaping.

The Four Way Restaurant, Memphis, Tennessee

The Four Way Restaurant has served the Soulsville community of Memphis since 1946. The down-South restaurant is known for its soul food and delicious desserts, allowing customers to taste the city's rich history. The restaurant is well-known for its community activism and has received many visits from distinguished Civil Rights movement leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.

The restaurant's fried chicken and a daily turkey and best-dressing-ever meal have also attracted many well-known entertainers such as Reverend Al Green, Pops Staples and the Staple Singers, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Redd Foxx, Aretha Franklin, Ike and Tina Turner, and more.

The Black-owned establishment has been a source of light in the community for the past 75 years. The restaurant plans to use the grant for exterior improvements, such as new landscaping for outdoor seating and cleaning.

John's Place, Cookeville, Tennessee

John's Place is a pillar of the West Cookeville area, especially for the Black community. The historic bar was Cookeville's first fully integrated establishment, which helped integrate the town and improve race relations in the Upper Cumberland region during the 1960s and 1970s. John's Place welcomed people from various backgrounds to have a beer and a famous John Dog.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, John's Place will use money from the grant to update the building's exterior and replace signage, among other improvements.

Harold & Belle's Restaurant, Los Angeles

Third-generation business owner Ryan Legaux and his wife, Jessica, make sure that the art, food, and culture of New Orleans is kept alive in the City of Angels through Harold & Belle's Restaurant. Founded in September 1969 by Harold Legaux Sr. and wife Mary Belle, the NOLA-inspired restaurant is known for its large portions of file gumbo, crawfish etouffee, jambalaya, and fried seafood.

Initially a bar, the restaurant shifted to a fine dining establishment for customers in South Los Angeles between the late 1970s and early 1980s. Today, the establishment's brand extends to a restaurant expansion; a food trailer, Harold & Belle's To Geaux; and the packaging of Harold & Belle's Creole Seasoning.

Welcoming many leaders, elected officials, and visitors worldwide, the restaurant has also provided hundreds of jobs in the Jefferson Park and Crenshaw communities.

The owners plan to use the grant to improve the restaurant's curb appeal and visibility, along with other exterior updates.

Ben's Chili Bowl, Washington, D.C.

Serving Washingtonians and people from all over the world since August 1958, Ben's Chili Bowl is known not just for its half-smokes, but for its presence since the glory days of "Black Broadway” in D.C.

Founded by Ben and Virginia Ali, Ben's Chili Bowl has been a family-run community restaurant for more than 60 years. It has always celebrated D.C.'s African American history, culture, and character. Surviving through race riots, the Civil Rights era, drug wars, and gentrification, Ben's Chili Bowl is today a must-visit restaurant for tourists and boasts its original furnishings, including its counter, booths, and stools. Prominent figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and former President Barack Obama have dined at Ben’s Chili Bowl.

Thanks to the support from the grant, funds will rehabilitate and restore the restaurant's exterior and electrical work.

Alfreda's Soul Food, Houston

Alfreda's Soul Food has been welcoming every customer with open and loving arms since 1964. The historic Black-owned restaurant, known for its down-home cooking, is the longest-standing soul food restaurant in Houston’s Historic Third Ward.

Current owners Troy and Marguerite Williams have been incorporating community into their operations for many years by working with local educational institutions, the Red Cross, mentorship programs for the recently incarcerated, and more. Alfreda's takes pride in being a part of Houston's rich Black history.

The historic restaurant will use the grant for exterior public-facing improvements such as updating the patio area and adding new signage. Alfreda's also plans to update its website and online services.

Ray's Luncheonette Inc., Montclair, New Jersey

Known for its classic eggs, roasted chicken, and meatloaf, Ray's Luncheonette has served generations of families for breakfast, lunch, and dinner since 1964. With its buzzing neon sign, the neighborhood gem is the heart of the community and continues to serve people from all walks of life.

For years, the historic storefront has served as a gathering spot for mechanics, politicians, yoga moms, and more. According to its staff, residents can all agree that Ray's is part of the rhythm of life in Montclair.

The grant will help the restaurant improve its exterior with updated signage, painting, and windows, as well as provide proper accommodations for outdoor dining.

Galloways Landing Bar & Restaurant, Boquerón, Puerto Rico

In 1951, cousins David "Javo'' Cofresi Ruiz and Ismael "Mao" Ruiz Irizarry turned two wooden buildings from the 1930s initially built as Boquerón's fish market and fisherman's lodge into a restaurant. Now known as Galloways Landing Bar & Restaurant, the restaurant is still standing after more than 70 years. The restaurant was passed down to Gladys Carlo Galloway, a younger cousin of the two, and is currently owned by Wanda Carlo, Gladys’ younger sister. The family-owned restaurant is known for its local seafood and typical homemade Criollo comfort food.

Galloways Landing Bar & Restaurant is the region's largest full-service restaurant and a Boquerón landmark. It is known for its quality customer service, inviting ambiance, and beautiful views of Boquerón Bay and sunset.

The funds from the grant will help exterior-facing improvements such as paintwork, new signage, and reopening costs.

Casa Vicky, San Jose, California

Casa Vicky is an immigrant-founded and women-led restaurant that provides soulful Mexican food and tasty handmade tortillas to the San Jose community. It is also the go-to place for lovers of Mexican food, vegetarian meals, and pastries. The historically and culturally significant establishment has been a lively gathering place for residents and visitors to the city for many decades, and continues to be a community staple by supporting locals and providing space for events.

The Small Restaurants grant will help the restaurant create a vibrant, Mexican-inspired outdoor dining experience and provide other exterior accommodations for patrons.

Exterior of a brown building with the words Casa Vicky on a sign in front. The roof has dark brown shingles and a row of newspaper boxes and a car sits in front.

photo by: Cristiano Tomás via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0

Casa Vicky in San Jose, California

“Historic small restaurants are cultural treasures that strengthen their communities and carry their legacies and traditions forward in deeply meaningful ways.”

Katherine Malone-France, Chief Preservation Officer, National Trust

Late 20th Century

Stutts House of Bar-B-Q, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Stutts House of Bar-B-Q is a Black-owned barbeque restaurant located on Apache Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The area used to be the home to multiple Black-owned barbeque spots that were staples in the North Tulsa community, but Stutts, which serves smoked ribs, beef, bologna, homemade desserts, and more, is the only one still standing today.

Many Tulsa residents believe it's essential to keep the history of the city's Black-owned businesses alive and their doors open, particularly with 2021 marking the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre that destroyed Black Wall Street on Greenwood Avenue, located about 3 miles from the restaurant. Thanks to the Small Restaurants grant, Stutts will complete exterior updates such as paintwork, new signage, and outdoor accommodations for customers.

Suehiro Café, Los Angeles

Suehiro Café has been serving Los Angeles residents authentic Japanese comfort food for almost 50 years. Founded by Junko Suzuki and her sister, Yuriko, in 1972, the establishment was the first woman-owned business in Little Tokyo, a designated historic area where Japanese families gathered before internment.

Today, Junko's son, Kenji, runs the family-owned restaurant, and it has become the oldest restaurant in the neighborhood. Kenji has made it his mission to continue maintaining his mother's mission to serve the community and offer a welcoming atmosphere.

The café plans to use the grant to help preserve the restaurant located in the historic, 140-year-old Sperl building, which needs updated exterior repairs and improvements such as a new paint job.

Daddy Dz BBQ Joynt, Atlanta

Traveling back down South, Daddy Dz BBQ Joynt is one of the finest barbeque joints in Atlanta. The restaurant serves comfort and traditional soul food, including meat cooked on a hickory and oak pit.

The restaurant is popular among many Atlanta residents and has received regular visits from Georgia state troopers, local musicians, Atlanta Braves stars, and more. Every customer is guaranteed to be welcomed with a smile and good food. The restaurant considers customers to be their success and their blessings.

The money from the grant will be used for multiple improvements, including electrical work, outdoor eating accommodations for customers, and improving the overall look of the establishment.

Wanda J's Next Generation Soul Food Restaurant, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Serving the Tulsa community since 1974, Wanda J's Next Generation Soul Food Restaurant exemplifies hearty, family-fun dining. It is the second restaurant in the city run by Wanda's five granddaughters.

The family is making sure that the Black community has a bright future in Tulsa, a city once home to Black Wall Street. Wanda J's honors the legacy of Black Wall Street by keeping Black entrepreneurship, Black movements, and the celebration of Black foods alive.

The restaurant plans to use the grant money for exterior improvements such as replacing the storefront doors and windows and providing outdoor accommodations.

Nakato Japanese Restaurant, Atlanta

Tetsuko Nakato founded Nakato Japanese Restaurant to spotlight and honor her Japanese culture, working with then-Governor Jimmy Carter to encourage Japanese businesses to set up outposts in Atlanta. While visiting the premiere establishment, business professionals and visitors from around the world can experience the radiant traditions of Japanese cuisine.

Sachiyo "Sachi" Nakato Takahara, Testuko's granddaughter, now runs the restaurant and keeps her grandmother's vision alive almost a half-century later by introducing guests to intricate flavors and traditions. Sachi has been committed to maintaining her grandmother's morals by making guests feel special and welcome. She and her staff are Certified Sake Advisors who guide guests through the educational process of finding the perfect Sake for the Japanese dishes.

As the cornerstone of the Piedmont Heights community, the restaurant plans to use the grant for exterior updates and provide more lighting and accessibility for guests.

La Fonda El Taquito, Kansas City, Missouri

Standing firm on its motto, "We are more than a restaurant, we are the centerpiece of the community," Midwestern eatery La Fonda El Taquito is the center of engagement for local leaders, elected officials, and activists. Not only is the food delicious, but people also come together to share their lived experiences through their voices and art at the establishment.

La Fonda El Taquito takes pride in serving Kansas City's Mexican American residents and plans to use the grant for exterior work such as brickwork, lighting, and other outdoor developments.

Sweetheart Cafe & Tea, Oakland, California

Recognized as the first milk tea shop in the East Bay, Sweetheart Cafe & Tea is a historic landmark in the Oakland community. The cafe has been in business for over 20 years and has since been brewing quality tea, serving real fruit smoothies, and making delicious foods and snacks.

Sweetheart's owner, Jialin Pan, is working alongside the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce and other Chinatown business owners to create a prosperous, diverse community in the area. Pan is working beyond serving food and is actively supporting and protecting the Asian community against hate crimes.

This grant will help Pan with exterior and interior renovations, such as new signage, lighting, paintwork, and window decals, as well as security installations.

Lee Lee's Baked Goods, New York City

With the motto "Rugelach by a Brother!" Carolina native Alin Lee Smalls is known for creating magical rugelach and delicious handmade pastries and cakes. Smalls’ restaurant, Lee Lee's Baked Goods, located on West 118th Street, has been an essential part of Central Harlem since 1971, playing a significant role in community events, celebrations, and more.

Lee's Lee's Baked Goods has received nationwide recognition, and it continues to grow and expand one sweet treat at a time. With this grant, Lee Lee's will replace and upgrade exterior fixtures, provide sidewalk café seating, and more.

El Cristo Restaurant, Miami

Located in Little Havana, El Cristo is a place that brings Cuban culture to Miami-Dade County. Serving guava and cheese pastelitos alongside Cuban coffee, the Westchester urban cafe-turned-restaurant is one of Miami's best stops for Cuban food.

A great place for foodies to enjoy excellent customer service and ambiance since 1972, the restaurant strives to create an environment that makes guests feel at home for breakfast, lunch, or dinner with a Cuban and American flair. Now in business for almost 50 years, El Cristo describes itself as "an experience beyond the ordinary.”

The grant will help El Cristo with its ongoing beautification project to update its outdoor accommodations for guests and replace the lighting and paintwork to improve the aesthetic appeal of the restaurant.

American Express and the National Trust are honored to help these historic establishments through the Backing Historic Restaurants Small Grant Program.

Whether they are cozy cafes, delicious dives, upscale dining, or fun bars, these restaurants need our continuous support. We hope customers will continue to support them by visiting and indulging in the various food options they offer.

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Support the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll be providing the courage, comfort, and inspiration of historic places now, when we need it most.

Brianna Rhodes is the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund Editorial Fellow for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

brhodes@savingplaces.org @@Bri_Rhodes24

Join us for PastForward Online 2021, the historic preservation event of the year, November 2-5, 2021.

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