Southern with a twist
Longtime restaurateur sees opportunity in Dudley location
Cheryl Straughter had a 10-year run with Keith’s Place, a popular Grove Hall eatery that she opened in 1996 to bring sit-down meals to the neighborhood.
Following that venture, Straughter began a 12-year odyssey that has in many ways brought her back to where she started.
After closing Keith’s Place, she enrolled in Johnson and Wales University’s culinary arts program, learning the intricacies of cooking and food preparation. She went on to work as a recruiter for the school. When her mother developed advanced Alzheimer’s disease, she returned to Boston to take care of her, while taking classes nights at Simmons College, where she earned a master’s of social work.
Next, she worked for three-and-a-half years at Future Chefs, a nonprofit that uses food service training to help teens gain academic and professional skills.
When Straughter learned last year that one of the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building’s restaurant spaces, then occupied by Tasty Burger, was soon to be vacant, she jumped at the opportunity.
“When I walked through this space, I felt as though I could make this a restaurant that the community wanted and needed,” she says.
In opening Soleil in the Bolling Building, Straughter is returning both to the food business and to Dudley Square, a commercial district that figured prominently in her childhood.
“My mother loved Dudley,” she said. “We used to go to Woolworths. I remember riding the elevated train, going downtown.”
Straughter sees the bustle returning to the long-struggling district, with several entrepreneurs opening new restaurants in the area this year and Black Market, the weekend bazaar on Washington Street, drawing a diverse crowd of shoppers.
“I love Black Market,” Straughter says. “We are going to feed off of each other. It’s great that people are interested in Dudley. There’s a weave of energy and interest in Dudley.”
Soleil’s soft launch — a time period when the restaurant is open for business, but not publicized — was two weeks ago. Since then, Straughter and her nine employees have been tweaking the menu and improving the workflow.
The food is a mixture of influences that Straughter says defies a label.
“Is it Southern cooking?” she says. “Some of it is. We have fried chicken. But we also have grilled salmon. Yesterday I made collard greens with kale. I have oven-roasted carrots with a honey glaze. It’s not really Southern cooking, but it’s a Southern thing with a twist.”
The food is all cooked from scratch, right down to the cranberry compote that goes into her sandwiches. Straughter avoids using canned or frozen foods, opting for fresh ingredients.
“There’s a certain passion I have about food,” she says. “I really put my heart and soul into a meal.”
In March, she began renovations in the space, doing much of the demolition and painting herself. The layout of the roughly L-shaped restaurant remains largely the same as when Tasty Burger first opened, but Straughter has made some significant changes. She took out two fryers and added in a grill, a charcoal broiler and an array of hot trays for entrees at the service counter. A salad bar is opposite the serving counter. Straughter added upholstery to the booths and ripped out a bench in the back section to create a bar.
She has applied for a beer
and wine license. At the far end of the restaurant, which protrudes into the lobby of the Bolling Building, she added tables and chairs from the Ester restaurant that closed recently in Lower Mills and added cushions. With several wide-screen televisions, the area is perfect for watching sports games, Straughter says.
She financed the restaurant with savings and some help from the Department of Neighborhood Development’s Small Business Center.
In its first few days, Soleil has been busiest at breakfast and lunch times, she says. Straughter hopes a beer and wine license will help draw patrons in after 6 p.m., when Dudley has typically emptied out. When customers start staying after dark, Dudley’s rebirth will be cemented, Straughter says.
“We have to create a destination point,” she says. “That’s what this place is.”