“They like to get you drunk around here,” laughed Genese Jamilah on the first night we met for dinner and drinks. She was referring to James Freeman, the owner of Brooklyn restaurant Sweet Science, who stepped away to put in our drink order almost immediately after we took our seats at the bar. Genese and I were settling in for a long night of drinks, reminiscing, eating, singing, and more drinking with James Freeman—one of the many restauranteurs highlighted during Black-Owned Restaurant Month, a dinner series created by Genese as part of her event and feature website I Don’t Do Clubs .
Genese has became all too aware of how tired the nightclub scene is for many black professionals since she made the move to New York in 2007.
“Clubs are hot, people step on your feet and spill overpriced drinks on your clothes,” she says. Annoyed by this reality and sure there was a better way to socialize, she started to hunt for activities that offer people more than sticky heels and blackout nights on the dance floor and share them on a blog in 2011. After years of networking and research, IDDC has become a thoroughly-vetted database of restaurateur and retailer features, event promotions, and more.
Genese grew up in Stone Mountain, Georgia, an upper-middle class, predominantly black suburb of Atlanta, where supporting black-owned businesses felt effortless to her. That accessibility conditioned her to appreciate the professionals serving her community, but when she moved to New Jersey, she found that finding a similar sense of community wasn’t a given, let alone easy to foster.
“Don’t you try to get a black physician or dentist before you look anywhere else?” she asked many of her new friends in the Northeast. Much to her surprise, the answer was, “No.”
To this day, she still talks about these conversations with sincere bewilderment. When I asked why she thinks it’s important for people to support black-owned businesses, her answer is simply, “Why not?” She doesn’t see a good reason not to spend her money supporting an establishment that is part of her community.
Though she got decent results Googling “black doctor near me,” it wasn’t as easy to find that same information for brunch, or cocktails. “My friends and I like to go eat, and do brunches and dinners and happy hours, and I thought, maybe I can do something with that ,” she said.
The bar at Sweet Science, one of the restaurants participating in BORM. Photo by Mackenzie Anne Smith
A few months later, Black-Owned Restaurant Month was born. Launched in 2015 as a national month-long series of unique three-course prix fixe dinners for three nights a week during all of April, the event mirrors other city-wide restaurant weeks. Diners can visit any of the 16 black-owned businesses participating and enjoy meals for $30 including tax and tip, from now through April 27 in New York, Atlanta, Washington D.C., and more.
Sweet Science’s Freeman and executive chef Milton Muñoz have created their own personal takes on Southern dishes and flavors for this year’s BORM. The octopus salad appetizer is as bright as the house-made gnocchi and short rib entree is comforting, and a bread pudding dessert with coffee ice cream is thoughtfully paired—”if you’re going to have to coffee with dessert, why not turn it into ice cream?” James rationalizes. And although this isn’t food you’d find on every table in the American South, both Sweet Science’s service and dishes are injected with the warmth of Southern hospitality.
The octopus dish at Sweet Science. Photo by Mackenzie Anne Smith
The names of the cocktails are nods to Sweet Science’s inspiration: the art of boxing. You can’t go wrong with the El Luchadore, a bright, punchy tequila-based cocktail, perfect for lifting the spirits. Owner James Freeman would know, too: boxing was a great analogy for his time building the restaurant. “There were so many times that I was ‘in the corner’ crying, throwing these underground parties in here just to pay the Con Ed bill,” he says.
James Freeman, owner of Sweet Science, enjoys a drink. Photo by Mackenzie Anne Smith
As a response to struggles that business owners like James are having, Genese believes that involvement in BORM allows owners to drive traffic to their restaurants, get the word out about their business and, most importantly, join the growing list of places where everyone—black and otherwise—can enjoy good eats without strobe lights or groping.
Our next stop on BORM restaurant list was at the opposite end of New York, where I (literally) sunk my hands into a beautiful mess of curry and salsas on a hidden back patio in Harlem. We were presented steaming bags of curried seafood, bright blue gloves (appreciated but pushed aside), and a range of salsas. We set to peeling shrimp, cracking shells, and sampling salsas as we talked to owners of Lolo’s Seafood Shack , Leticia “Skai” Young and Raymond Mohan, who explained to us that this formerly underutilized patio was the crux of what made their business great.
Lolo’s Seafood Shack was born out of their desire to offer a restaurant that encourages people stateside to let their hair down as if on a beach vacation. The couple spent time in Anguilla, enjoying oceanside living and travel, and particularly the seafood shacks (or “lolos”) of the islands. “When we were chilling in Anguilla, we’d be barefoot, chilling on the beach and you didn’t know who you’d be talking to,” said Skai. And even as a centrally-located establishment in New York City, Lolo’s is an opportunity for restaurant patrons to do the same. With communal seating and island jams floating their backyard, it’s hard not to lean toward your neighbor and inquire about the sauces they chose or their plans for the night.
Lolo’s Seafood Shack brings a slice of the Caribbean to Harlem. Photo via the restaurant
“The whole thing we’re trying to embody here is that a lolo is a gathering place, we just want to be that cool, casual gathering place that’s really hinged on equality,” said Skai, who was born and raised around the corner. She says Harlem was central to their success, as they’re currently watching the neighborhood shift in a new way, opening the door for entrepreneurs to contribute economically, professionally as well as culturally. “We really are a part of the second renaissance—it’s kind of like a rebirthing of Harlem,” she said. “That’s why we wanted to do what is hopefully one of many restaurants here to start a foundation.”
When Skai talks about Harlem, she’s quick to reference the authentic amalgamation of flavors and continents that are represented in the neighborhood. Similarly, the Lolo’s menu incorporates a range of flavors that aren’t quite fusion, but instead more of an exploration of how Thai, Caribbean and New England classics can meld. Their salsa tasting appetizer includes salsa verde, ghost pepper, and pineapple salsa, and their curries can incorporate New England staples like crab as well as hugely popular shrimp from the gulf. The 24-hour marinated chicken for their popular jerk dish takes Carribean classic spices and pairs them with flavorful curry sauces from Raymond’s personal exploration of Asian cuisine.
Restaurants like Sweet Science and Lolo’s Seafood Shack are just two of many on the list, but they’re great representations of the kinds of places Genese is excited to feature this month. They’re black-owner, sure, but they’re more worth a stop because of the communities they’ve built around a shared appreciation of culture and food (and, of course, for the cocktails).
Sweet Science , 135 Graham Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11206
Lolo’s Seafood Shack, 303 W 116th St, New York, NY 10026