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Seattle Legend Ms. Helen Brings Her Famous Oxtails and Gumbo Back to the Central District

The new restaurant will be led by Ms. Helen’s daughter, Jesdarnel Henton

Two women stand next to each other in front of a storefront.
Helen Coleman, and her daughter, Jesdarnel Henton, stand outside the future location of their new restaurant in the Central District’s Midtown Square.
Jesdarnel Henton

Helen Coleman moved to Seattle in 1970 and set up shop on East Union Street. From her homey restaurants — Helen’s Diner just east of 23rd and later, Ms. Helen’s Soul Food on 23rd, south of Union — Coleman nurtured the Central District with flavorful renditions of comforting classics, serving breakfast to construction workers, lunch to the barbers next door, and peach cobbler to local sports stars. Her big personality (welcoming, but no-nonsense) filled the room the way her smothered pork chops filled bellies.

Now, her daughter Jesdarnel “Squirt” Henton, who has cooked by her side since the first year in business, plans to open Ms. Helen’s Soul Bistro in almost the exact same place by August 2022. The pair secured a spot in the new Midtown Square building at 23rd and Union and have been working with the developers, Lake Union Partners, to get the space built out.

Ms. Helen’s oxtails, chicken, and velvet-smooth greens turned her regulars and an endless list of local and national Black luminaries — B.B. King, Ernestine Anderson, Muhammad Ali, Richard Pryor, Gary Payton, Ken Griffey Jr. — into avid fans for more than 30 years, until the 2001 earthquake damaged Helen’s Soul Food. As gentrification abounded and property prices rose, they forced her farther from the heart of the historically Black Central District, and eventually into retirement. Coleman raised the issue for decades, telling The Seattle Times in 1995, “The bottom line is money. I’m gratified to have it, but I can’t get it.” Two years later, she told the PI she was struggling as developments moved office buildings and chain stores in, eating up her parking lot and raising her business costs, and only making it “on a wing and a prayer.”

A woman stands holding two plates of food in a diner.
Ms. Helen serves food at her first diner in the Central District, which she operated in the 1970s and 1980s.
Jesdarnel Henton

After losing her restaurant, Coleman ran kitchens inside nightclubs, first Chocolate City on Madison and then Rose Petals on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Rumors over the years surfaced that Coleman would start cooking in different parts of the city — including in White Center, then in Midtown Center, on the block that is now Midtown Square — but nothing materialized. Henton ran a small business doing catering and casually selling plates of food, but always kept the idea of opening a new restaurant serving her mother’s classic recipes as a goal – with one requirement: “To really keep this business in the Central Area.”

When Henton announced she was looking for a location and funding a few months ago, Midtown Square reached out. “[They’re] just so excited and involved in this process and getting us there,” she says. “Doing whatever is necessary to help us.” When filling the retail space of the development, Lake Union Partners aimed to bring in locally owned, independent businesses, especially Black and other minority-owned ones, to reflect the historically Black neighborhood’s roots and to help stall the gentrification process that has pushed so many Black-owned businesses out of the neighborhood. Thanks in large part to the long-running and community-led efforts of Black activists like Africatown, this has also been a goal of Vulcan’s nearby development at 23rd and Jackson, as well as the non-profit-owned developments Liberty Bank Building (across the street from Midtown Square) and the Patricia K Apartments.

Ms. Helen’s will join Trey Lamont’s Jerk Shack and Mi Kim’s Raised Doughnuts in the building. Across the street, the nationally recognized Communion Restaurant opened in the Liberty Bank Building in 2020 with a nod to Coleman on the menu — sandwiches called po’mi, under a section heading, “If Ms. Helen was born in Little Vietnam.”

Henton will lead the new restaurant but will get help from the full family, including her own daughter. They also have assistance from another long-standing pillar of the Seattle restaurant scene: Donna Moodie, who runs the nearby Marjorie restaurant and works for Community Roots (the organization behind the Liberty Bank Building), partnered with Henton to help her navigate the process of opening a business.

But Ms. Helen herself has no plans to leave everything to others: Henton says her now-86-year-old mother is doing well and itching to get back into the kitchen just as much as those who have tasted her food want her there. “It’s hard to keep her still,” Henton says. “She can’t wait either.” Though the restaurant plans to open in August, Henton says they will be participating in events, starting with a community event at the development on February 26, and will be doing pop-ups soon, including at Rose Temple Bar on March 27 from 6 to 9 p.m.