On December 5, chef Kristi Brown’s highly anticipated new restaurant, Communion, officially opens in the Central District. It’s a celebratory event for the restaurant, which has been in development for four years and had originally been slated to open this summer. The occasion also holds great significance for the neighborhood: Communion is a Black-owned business, and its opening stands in contrast to the scores of Black entrepreneurs and residents that have been forced out of the area in droves due to gentrification.
One final obstacle delayed the opening by a week, as Brown — owner of catering company That Brown Girl Cooks — and her son and business partner, Damon Bomar, faced a possible COVID-19 exposure that impacted the team’s preparations. Now, with negative test results in hand for the entire staff, the restaurant will welcome its first customers on Saturday, December 5, for takeout service and outdoor dining.
Brown calls her food “Seattle soul,” an ode to the cultural swirl of the Central District and nearby Chinatown-International District, along with her own family history and Kansas City childhood. Southern soul food influences show up in the shrimp and grits; Brown’s memories of shopping at International District markets led to creative dishes such as pho with Chinese eggplant, fried oyster mushroom po’ mi (a banh mi-po boy hybrid), and a fried catfish sushi roll.
Brown raised Bomar in the Central District near a cluster of Ethiopian restaurants; those flavors show up in her “Slow Burn” hummus and a grilled chicken entree, which incorporate the Ethiopian spice blend berbere. Vegetable root cakes, a favorite of Brown’s catering customers, is also on the menu.
Communion is a significant, long-awaited step for Brown, who is a hugely successful career caterer. But it’s also now a touchstone for the Central District, sitting on the ground floor of the Liberty Bank Building, an important community landmark. The original building housed the first Black-owned bank in the region, opened in response to the racist redlining practices that made most of Seattle off limits to homeowners who were not white. As Black homebuyers looked to settle where they could, many arrived in the Central District, and Liberty Bank was their financial support.
The site has been redeveloped in partnership with several community organizations —Africatown-Central District Preservation and Development Association, Community Roots Housing, Black Community Impact Alliance, and Byrd Barr Place — and it now consists of affordable housing and ground-floor businesses like Brown’s. It’s a potential watershed development for a neighborhood that has seen a steady displacement of its Black residents and businesses. In 1970, the Central District was about 73 percent Black; now, Black residents make up fewer than 18 percent of the population.
Though there are other Black-owned restaurants nearby (like Fat’s Chicken and Waffles and Meskel), to be one of the few new openings in the Central District carries its own sort of pressure. “It’s a lot of responsibility,” Brown told me over drinks in February, long before the pandemic took hold. “But it became a rising up on our part. I don’t know anyone else in this industry who has this kind of opportunity.”
To keep perspective — especially as friends and neighbors continually draw comparisons to and reminisce about long-closed, Black-owned Central District restaurants like Ms. Helen’s Cafe and Catfish Corner — Brown says she is focusing on her mission, and letting expectations “fall by the wayside.”
For Brown, the call to be a positive force during the pandemic led to the development of a community kitchen, launched in partnership with Beacon Hill restaurant Musang, Feed the People’s Tarik Abdullah, and other chefs. That program (#everybodygottaeat) is still going strong, serving meals to anybody in need on Thursdays and Saturdays in Brown’s catering kitchen on Martin Luther King Jr. Way S.
With an ethos about close community ties in mind, Communion was conceived as an uplifting gathering space. But the state-mandated hiatus on indoor dining means Brown and Bomar won’t welcome diners inside their brightly decorated restaurant just yet. Whenever customers are allowed to sit at tables indoors again, they’ll be greeted by a message on the floor by the entryway that reads, “I am home.” From there, they’ll have four seating options: dining at the restaurant’s central, communal table, as a larger group eating family style or seated next to other diners; cozying into leather booths near the front door; bellying up to the bar; or sitting at a chef’s counter overlooking the kitchen. There’s also a small retail area selling Brown’s cult-favorite black-eyed pea hummus, plus jarred cocktails and other local products.
“The booth space is about intimacy, getting people to converse with each other, to come in in fellowship,” says Bomar. “We use Christian terms but it’s not meant to be Christian. It’s meant to utilize that feeling to bring togetherness.”
Bomar brings his cocktail know-how to the bar, which is primarily his realm at Communion. “The bar is gonna be popping,” he says. “I’m excited.” He expects to host dinner service and late-night happy hour there, with low lighting lending a lounge feel. When indoor dining returns, Bomar will add brunch — his other specialty.
For now, though, Communion will mostly serve food and cocktails to go. There will be a delivery option run in-house, using Brown’s catering vans. Communion has patio space, which wraps around the front and side of the building. “We were thinking we would start outdoor dining next year, but we sped that timeline up,” Brown says. Patio heaters are hard to come by amid a pandemic, but the restaurant was lucky to land some.
Brown has retooled her menu so that her food travels well. “My whole menu is built around to go,” she says, noting that the current offerings weren’t entirely what she originally planned. New items will rotate in to fit the indoor dining experience, whenever that comes back. “It’s been a clusterfuck,” she says. “It’s an interesting space and time to try to figure it out.”
Limited though the opening experience may be, Brown hopes her original intent shines through. “We named it Communion so people could come together from different tribes,” Brown says. “Now it will happen while people wait in line.”
- Communion [Official]
- Seattle’s Most Anticipated Restaurant Openings of Fall 2020 [ESEA]