Two decades ago, the storefronts of Denver’s Five Points neighborhood were still known for soul food.
You could order the fried chicken from Kapre Lounge or the catfish at Pierre’s Supper Club, spicy barbecue ribs from M&D’s Cafe and boiled pig ear sandwiches from Zona’s Tamales. For 37 years before she retired in 2008, Ethel Allen would serve you pork chops and peach cobbler from her House of Soul on Welton Street.
Those were some of the long-standing, African-American-owned institutions that served as pillars of a community that had been legally segregated as recently as 1959 (when Colorado passed the state Fair Housing Act). The components of their menus can be traced back to West Africa and the American South during slavery. Today’s soul food came to Denver largely during the Great Migration, in the first half of the 20th century.
Fast forward to the heart of Denver’s historically black neighborhood in 2019, and there’s only one soul food spot still standing.
Welton Street Cafe opened in 1999. In July, it celebrates 20 years of frying chicken and catfish at the center of Five Points. This year, second-generation owner Fathima Dickerson says she finally feels secure in her business.
“If we are open 100 years from now, or if we have to close tomorrow, we made it,” she said while on her morning commute. (There are six stop signs from her home to the cafe.) “We made it. And that’s a thing that a lot of people can’t say.”
Nearing two decades in business, Dickerson, 32, said she and her family faced sudden rent hikes, from one month to the next, and the threat of eviction. Then last summer, she got a call from a friend telling her that the Flyfisher Group (fourth-generation black Coloradan billionaire Robert F. Smith is an investor)
would buy the property that houses her family’s restaurant.
“(They) bought us that much more time to prepare for anything,” she said of the purchase, her voice breaking.
Within blocks of Welton Street Cafe, high-rises are cropping up; inside them are luxury cocktail bars and yoga studios. A few blocks farther is the River North Art District, where white-owned restaurants sell barbecue and fried chicken, and where even the name “RiNo” threatens to erase and replace Five Points, along with creeping development.
But with news of Welton Street Cafe’s recent investment and the storied Rossonian Hotel reopening
under African-American ownership, there are signs, if small, of soul food’s persistence.
“How can we hold on to that heritage so that there’s not basically a chocolate-covered yogurt, where you have this black shell and everything else inside is white?” asked Adrian Miller, a Denver-based food historian and author of the 2013 book “Soul Food.”
“How do we find that balance? I think that’s going to be the trick.”
(Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post)
Fathim Dickerson, twin brother of general manager Fathima Dickerson, turning out oxtail stew and a fried chicken dinner during lunch service at the Welton Street Cafe in the Five Points neighborhood in Denver, Colorado on June 7, 2019.
On a recent weekday lunch hour, Miller discussed the rise and fall of soul food in Five Points over a plate of jerk chicken and collard greens at the Welton Street Cafe.
He said his own family moved from nearby Park Hill East to the suburbs in the 1970s. Miller is grateful that his parents kept their ties to a black church in Denver, “but it’s not like we would come back here to eat in restaurants,” he said.
One of the biggest challenges facing soul food during that era was that longtime neighborhood joints had all of a sudden become destination restaurants, Miller said.
But the reasons for many of this neighborhood’s restaurant closings are layered. Forces of gentrification, negative perceptions of African-American food and a lack of desire from the children of restaurant owners to take over their parents’ businesses are all contributors, according to Miller.
“We’re roughly a generation away from the civil rights movement when a lot of these restaurants started,” he said. “So this is the turning point, and more often than not, places have closed.”
Welton Street Cafe is an exception. Fathima Dickerson grew up washing linens and waiting tables at her family’s handful of local eateries. (All of the others have since closed, though her uncle recently opened Genna Rae Wings & More takeout at 28th Avenue and Williams Street).
When it came time for her and six siblings to discuss the next steps for their last-standing restaurant, Fathima and her twin brother Fathim were the ones who were willing to take it over.
“The reality is, there are nine of us in our family, and there are two kids committed to this business,” she said. Now Fathim is in the kitchen with their parents, Flynn and Amona, while Fathima works in the dining room seven days a week, serving every customer. She’s also finishing a master’s degree in women’s and gender studies at the University of Colorado Denver. (Yes, she reassures everyone who asks, she still plans to run the restaurant after graduation.)
“It’s not just about the food, it’s a community space,” Dickerson said. “What makes Welton Street Cafe so unique (compared) to the new development of Five Points is that it’s inclusive of everyone, no matter what your race is, your age, any type of identifier or social status.
“A lot of what has come down here, the majority of the patrons are white,” she continued. “Welton Street Cafe is always a place that will have that diversity and inclusiveness that these other businesses are lacking.”
(Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post)
Erica Daniel of Aurora looking off at Welton Street during her lunch at the Welton Street Cafe, the last-standing soul food restaurant in the Five Points neighborhood, in Denver, Colorado on June 7, 2019.
When he looks around the neighborhood, Miller sees a similar picture. But he says he’s hopeful for new forms of food service, from mobile trucks to pop-ups and other emerging platforms.
“There are other ways to keep the food traditions alive,” he said.
Across the country, soul food is having a resurgence at award-winning restaurants like JuneBaby in Seattle and The Grey in Savannah. Miller has dined at establishments from San Francisco to Chicago serving African-American cuisine that’s traditional and health-conscious or vegetarian and vegan or upscale and fusion.
While he sees elements of those movements in Denver — try the soul food egg rolls at CoraFaye’s Cafe — his hometown is still lacking in African-American restaurants. When Miller wrote “Soul Food” in 2013, he said, many trained chefs didn’t want to cook traditional African-American cuisine, for many reasons, top among them its association with slavery.
“They didn’t want to seem pigeonholed by the type of cooking,” he said. “And now it’s just really gratifying to see all these chefs saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute, everybody else is eating this food and making a ton of money off of it. Why can’t I honor my own traditions and, you know, give my own visions for this food?’ ”
For soul food to thrive in Denver, it needs the support of the community — from chefs to landlords, developers, city leaders and diners. And when it does make a comeback, in Five Points and elsewhere, it will be long overdue, Miller said.
“If you look at black culture, every aspect of it has gone global except our food,” he said. “How we look, how we talk, how we dress, how we sing, how we play sports, how we entertain. Everything except for food.”
Find soul food around Denver:Welton Street Cafe Home of Mona’s
; 2736 Welton St., 303-296-6602; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, until 10 p.m. Thursday and Friday, noon-10 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. Sunday, closed MondayGenna Rae Wings & More
(takeout); 1819 E. 28th Ave., 720-287-3523; ordergennaraeswingsmore.com; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and until 5 p.m. SundayCoraFaye’s Cafe
(Aurora); 16251 E. Colfax Ave., 303-333-5551; corafayescafe.com; 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, until 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and until 5 p.m. Sunday, closed MondayCatfish Haven
(Green Valley Ranch); 4650 Tower Road, 303-399-3730; 3 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 11 a.m.-midnight Wednesday and Thursday, until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon-10 p.m. SundayChef D’s
(Aurora); 14200 E. Alameda Ave., 720-451-5379; facebook.com/ChefDsColorado; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday