Southern Café serves up soul food worth waiting for
By Lou Fancher
Retiring after 30 years as an Oakland firefighter, Phillip Bell's friends and family thought the San Francisco native might finally slow down -- not a chance.
Having served for eight years as the landlord for a building on MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland's Dimond district that until 2008 housed the popular soul food restaurant, Southern Café, Bell answered the call from the café's former chef-owner Deimentrius Clay to revive the slow food establishment.
With the Oakland operation up and running in 2014, including a popular Sunday all-you-can-eat brunch featuring live jazz music, Bell put his ear to the street and heard a second call to bring the crispy fried chicken, oxtails, mac & cheese, collard greens and other Southern-style comfort foods to Antioch.
"My wife, Courtney, is from Antioch, so she's partial to it," says Bell, who with his wife lives in Oakland. "But mainly, people from Pittsburg, Brentwood and Antioch were coming to Oakland all the time and saying, 'Wow, we don't have anything up where we are. We'd love to have a soul food restaurant in Antioch.' The city has been extremely supportive."
Mayor Wade Harper says he's visited the restaurant seven times and is excited to have a new restaurant opening downtown.
"They always give me enough food to last for a second meal," he said. "I have heard from many different Antioch residents who have patronized the restaurant; the accolades are numerous. Despite the fact that there have been other restaurants at the 400 G Street location, we are hopeful that the city of Antioch and surrounding communities will make Southern Café a success. I will definitely do my part."
The Southern Café has taken over the location of the former Bases Loaded, a restaurant that was given a $300,000 city incentive in 2008 from a redevelopment fund aimed at revitalizing the downtown. Harper says he knows of no such arrangement with the Southern Café. Bell says the Jan. 29 grand opening is just the beginning as the restaurant settles into the city and finds its identity.
"My general manager, Leonard Collins, has done all the hiring; about 30 people, with roughly half full-time, half part-time. Customer service is his No. 1 priority: if it isn't good, people won't come back no matter how good the food is. It's Southern hospitality here; a home atmosphere is what we create."
And while it's true that knowledgeable, affable servers and a nimble kitchen staff are vital to a restaurant's success -- Bell has brought Clay's sister, Dee Dee Carter, to run the Antioch kitchen -- good food certainly has a role in whether or not a restaurant is viable. "We're constantly evaluating what will work in this area," says Bell.
With a wary eye on the bottom line, especially after the minimum wage jumped from $9 to $12.55 in Oakland, Bell says that adding Sunday brunch in Antioch is still under consideration to make sure the price point balances. Live jazz music, however, is a feature he hopes to add within the next few months. "We've had a number of folks stopping in to offer their services in that way."
Just three weeks into operation, oxtails are proving to be the most-often ordered item, explains Bell.
Other popular selections are the specials: gumbo that's not available in Oakland, fish dishes (catfish, snapper and blackened salmon), and the ever-present fried chicken and sides that include black-eyed peas, yams, rice with gravy and others.
Though the meanu is still being tweaked, entrees that come with rice and gravy and two sides are $17.25 to $24.95, while á la Carte dishes are $7.95 to $17.25, and sides are below $5 range
"People are always expecting to be full when they come to a soul food restaurant," says Bell. "They never leave hungry."
But other expectations, mainly for food that arrives quickly, are harder to meet. Bell says that comments on Yelp about having to wait for entrees at the Oakland restaurant are worthy of attention, but in some ways are unavoidable. "Southern food takes awhile. If you're talking fried, you're looking at 15-20 minutes. It's slow food. And our cooks are taught to cook-to-order, which delays delivery of food to the table."
Determined to do his best to meet a hurry-up society's style without compromising the quality of the meals served, Bell says "anticipating the push" is necessary. "We're tracking the number one and two items and the time those orders start to pick up so we can start cooking and anticipate the need."
Perhaps drawing on his kitchen experience as a firefighter will inform the practices, but it's unlikely. "In the fire department, even if you didn't cook, you cooked. They called those of us who were novices 'bull cooks.' I don't know what it meant except that I assisted a cook who had experience. I guess it rubbed off on me, because I learned gumbo, spaghetti, simple but tasty meals."
About owning a restaurant, he is learning the 24/7 pace. "As a firefighter, you have a lot of down time. Here, even on days we're closed, I'm shopping, returning calls. There's not a lot of time for going to the beach."
Or for fishing, a long-put-off hobby Bell hopes to return to someday. With five adult children and several grandchildren to entertain -- and the Sacramento—San Joaquin River Delta within three blocks -- Bell might indeed slow down and put a line in the water, if only during a late-afternoon getaway before the dinner rush.