Soul food sticks to your bones and Seattle’s queen of the genre, (Ms.) Helen Coleman, is back with her third Central District restaurant to prove it. Emerging from retirement, Coleman (now in her seventies) will open Ms. Helen’s Soul Food Bistro at 2801 East Union this October with her daughter, Jesdarnel Henton, in efforts to restore a sense of culture and community they feel has declined in that neighborhood.
For those who don’t know Ms. Helen’s story, take a moment. First, there was Ms. Helen’s Diner (at 23rd and Union; currently Neighbor Lady), which Coleman opened in 1970 and co-ran with Henton until the mid-eighties. Next, there was Ms. Helen’s Soul Food Restaurant across the street which the pair ran until the space was damaged in the Nisqually earthquake in 2001. Coleman and Henton went on to different endeavors, but the city didn’t forget: just last December, Ms. Helen’s Soul Food was featured in a Seattle P.I. slideshow of 47 "Seattle restaurants we miss," and Henton says she and her mom still can’t go anywhere without someone asking when they’ll reopen it.
The decision to do a new version of it this fall came two years ago when the owner of 23rd and Union’s MidTown Center, Tom Bangasser, told Coleman he was planning to sell the space and asked if she might open another restaurant to "help revitalize the area," according to Henton. A longtime family friend, Bangasser "wanted [the space] to go into hands that would be respectful of the area’s history," she says.
Coleman agreed, but only if Henton was on board, so she moved back to Seattle from Los Angeles a year ago and plans began. Henton says they are primarily opening the restaurant to create a gathering place and "get a sense of community back" in the Central District. In the days of the first two Ms. Helen’s eateries, Henton remembers the CD as a very lively, supportive, art-filled area (Ray Charles performed there), but feels that has waned in the last decade as condos and certain other businesses have been "thrown up" that dilute and dismiss the neighborhood’s roots.
It is, then, Ms. Helen’s classic oxtails, cornbread, and peach cobbler to the rescue, and more than just the food, it's all it represents. "I look at Helen's as being the little spark plug to this whole scenario," says Henton. "When other businesses see us fighting to come back, they're trying to do the same," she says, citing Catfish Corner as an example.
Henton wants Ms. Helen’s Soul Food Bistro to be a place where people come for meetings and conferences; for live jazz and R&B; for game viewing; for Dominoes championships. She’s envisioning Taco Tuesdays with a signature margarita (the restaurant will have a full bar) and Throwback Thursdays with dishes like tuna casserole that "your mama used to make."
Both mother and daughter plan to be in the kitchen, as well as hire some additional chefs. Their next step is to jumpstart capital, and Henton is planning a musical performance fundraiser late this spring to help.
"It feels right," she says about bringing Ms. Helen’s soul food back.