It’s been a long road back for Ms. Helen’s, and Seattle’s most famous soul food restaurant still has a way to go.
Helen Coleman founded Ms. Helen’s Diner in 1970, and it soon became a neighborhood institution in the Central District and a hub of the city’s Black community. As recounted in a 2021 Seattle Post-Intelligencer feature, Coleman and her daughter Jesdarnel “Squirt” Henton, who was cooking alongside her mother, “started to burn out in the early ‘80s.” They declared bankruptcy in 1983, but reopened as Ms. Helen’s Soul Food four years later, where they served some of the era’s most famous Black celebrities, like Richard Pryor, Gary Payton, and Ken Griffey Jr. When the 2001 Nisqually earthquake permanently damaged the building Ms. Helen’s occupied, Coleman moved on to cook at a few neighborhood restaurants and bars, then retired.
For the last few years, however, Henton has been working to continue her mother’s legacy, eyeing a return to the corner of 23rd Avenue and Union that Ms. Helen’s had anchored for decades.
Gentrification has transformed that part of the Central District almost beyond recognition, of course, with mixed-use high-rises and Uncle Ike’s garish flagship cannabis store now dominating the landscape. But the developers at Midtown Square, one of those new high-rises, reached out to Henton and have been working with her to bring back Ms. Helen’s, which will this time be dubbed Ms. Helen’s Soul Food Bistro.
In February 2022, Eater Seattle reported that this restaurant was planning to open the following August, but Henton hasn’t been able to secure the funds she needs to launch. “In my opinion, this whole project is going to cost $1 million,” Henton says. Of that, she estimates that she has $500,000 left to raise.
This Saturday, April 8, she’s holding a black-tie “Harlem Nights”–themed fundraiser. Tickets (which can be purchased here) are being sold for $55, and there will also be a silent auction and raffle — though the big draw will naturally be the food.
“We want to introduce ourselves back to the community,” Henton says. “This is our first tangible event in the space.”
While she works to secure funding, Ms. Helen’s is doing a weekly Sunday brunch at Rose Temple, giving Seattle a taste of what the full restaurant will be able to do.
Henton says she’s now targeting November as the opening date. “But I’ve been in this business long enough to know whatever can happen, will happen,” she says.