The Legacy Of LA's Black-Owned Restaurants
In 1975, Adolf Dulan, a social worker, and his wife, Mary, decided to open an Orange Julius franchise in South Los Angeles. Facing financial discrimination, the two made an enormous gamble.
“They could not get loans. And even when I started, it was hard getting loans,” says their son, Greg Dulan. “So, they had to draw down on their pension to open the restaurant. They risked it all to open the restaurant. They left their good paying, $20,000 a year, L.A. County jobs. And they threw down with their pension retirement savings and opened the restaurant. So, there was a lot of risk.”
The risk paid off.
A couple of years later they transformed the franchise into their own food stand — Hamburger City. Today, the Dulan family operates three of the most popular soul food restaurants in Southern California.
How Black Owned Restaurants Catered To LA's Black Community
Though early records are murky due to a lack of primary source historical records, we can piece together a legacy of Black-owned restaurants in Los Angeles stretching back to 1888. According to historian Douglas Flamming, in the excellent Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America, in October 1888, an early Black paper called The Weekly Observer mentioned a man named Frank Blackburn’s new “coffee and chop house” at 1st Street and Los Angeles Street. In 1889 the Western News advertised a restaurant owned by J.R. Walker on San Pedro Street between 1st and 2nd, the Victorian hub of Black commerce in L.A.
These eateries catered to the many Black men who worked as porters, laborers and chefs for the railroad companies — men such as Rufus Estes, a celebrated Pullman chef who retired in Los Angeles.
There were also smaller, independent operations. In the invaluable 1909 collection, The Federation Cook Book: A Collection of Tested Recipes, Contributed By The Colored Women of the State of California, there are advertisements for Black-owned or Black friendly grocers, restaurants and small businesses such as “Daughtery’s Homemade Relishes,” which offered a variety of olives, horseradish, chili sauce and pickles. Mrs. R.H. Hunter of Pasadena advertises herself as a cateress, who specializes in “lunches prepared on short notice,” serving “fresh eggs and chickens dressed to order.”
The Federation Cook Book, edited by Bertha L. Turner, opens with a charming ditty celebrating the importance of good food. It reads in part: “Believe not the love tales you find within a book. Love’s fate often turns on the skill of the cook.”
The recipes, written by women across the Southland, offers a tantalizing look at Black food culture in early 20th Century Southern California. Many of the recipes hint at the cook’s Southern heritage — jambalaya, creole dishes, fried okra with ham, string beans a la creole, Spanish rice, Blackberry cobbler, red watermelon preserves, and chicken pot pie. There are innovative ways to do without certain ingredients, with recipes for mock duck, mock bisque, and potatoes cake. SoCal’s abundant fruit and vegetables are used in recipes such as heavenly hash — a dessert of eggs, sugar, oranges, and bananas. One of the most delightful recipes is for a scripture cake, with each ingredient listed with a corresponding Bible verse.
Central Avenue Became A Hub For Black Residents
During the 1920s, Black Angelenos, discriminated against in most parts of the city, created a vibrant, dynamic business district up and down the legendary Central Avenue.
“Central Avenue glimmered with the bright lights of stores, cafés, and restaurants,” historian Donald Bogle writes in Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood. “Hot nights were made cooler by the opening, in 1927, of the ice cream parlor called The Vogue. Showbiz folks also gathered at Adams Sweet Shop to snack and swap stories. A steady stream of restaurants, cafés, and shops would first close and then — after the initial shock of the stock market crash — flourish once again on Central Avenue.”
Black-owned restaurants and clubs were often harassed by the LAPD, frequently raided and falsely accused of liquor violations and disturbing the peace. According to Flamming, these restaurants also faced discrimination within their community. He writes of a report given by the Colored Citizens Civic and Commercial Club in 1921:
In the midst of organizing a "Negro Trade Week," club leaders acknowledged that black consumers were angry at some Race businesses, especially the eating establishments. An investigation by the club found that "often these places charge twice as much as they should, and in many instances eating places operated by whites and Japanese [offer] better service at much less the cost.”
Despite these setbacks, Black-owned eateries on and around Central flourished well into the 1950s. At legendary jazz clubs such as Jack’s Basket Room, patrons in evening dress could dine on fried chicken and shoestring potatoes, while at the famed Club Alabam, Chinese food was on the menu. There were greasy spoons for a quick burger and sit-down establishments for families hungry after church.
One of the most famous restaurant owners on the avenue, Ivie Anderson, was also an accomplished jazz vocalist. Anderson, a California native, sang with the Duke Ellington Band for more than a decade, charming audiences across the country. "Ivie can sing a song so that the audience gets every word,” The California Eagle enthused, “and, at the same time make cracks at Sonny Greer, tease Duke and wink at the boys in the front row.”
But in the 1930s, Anderson found her career derailed by asthma. Pivoting to a new career, she opened the small, intimate Ivie’s Chicken Shack with her husband Marque Neal. Ivie’s became a favorite of musicians such as Art Tatum. Bogle writes:
The restaurant itself “was a small room. Very tastefully, very, very well done inside. Simple. And nice, easy banquettes to slide into and a spinet piano,” said [musician Bobby] Short. “And she had some wonderful, wonderful piano players there. She had Charles Brown as a young man who just began his career, probably at Ivie's Chicken Shack.” In the evening, patrons “could go there and have drinks. You found a lot of so-called upper crust sitting in there. And she welcomed the white trade.” “She kind of ran short because all these big shot Hollywood types would come in and say, ‘Put it on my tab.’ And they owed her,” producer Jean Bach recalled. “She should have been tougher about that.”
For the more religiously inclined there was the restaurant of Father Divine, the famed eccentric sect leader who took over the Dunbar Hotel briefly in the mid-1930s. “We could eat a full dinner for thirteen cents (weekdays), and a good doin' chicken dinner with all the trimmings for fifteen cents on Sundays,” musician Phil Moore recalled in Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams. “And for two cents extra we could get a trowel sized hunk of hot deep-dish multi-fruit cobbler called ‘The Mixed Multitude.’ Damn, this was some good scarfin … I don't know whether Father was God, but he was a godsend to ‘hongry’ show-people.”
Harry and Sadie Patterson were two of the many entrepreneurs who opened restaurants in the Central Avenue corridor during the 1930s. According to the L.A. Conservancy, the Shreveport, Louisiana natives opened a restaurant — patronized by future Mayor Tom Bradley, then a policeman on the Central beat — featuring time-tested family recipes, including their famous sweet potato pie. In 1956, they opened Mrs. Harry’s Pies and Cakes, at 2700 Central Avenue.
“Customers come in, ‘Hey, I knew your grandparents,’ and they'll talk about my grandfather,” says current co-owner Jeanette Bolden-Pickens. “They'll talk about how he, if … they wanted a pie and they didn't have any money, he'd say, ‘Okay, sweep this up around here.’ He'd make them work for it.”
In 1980, the Pattersons retired, and their daughter Alberta, along with her son, Gregg, took over the bakery, which was renamed 27th Street Bakery. Jeanette remembers that working there was required for all family members — whether they liked it or not.
“To go to track practice, I had to use my mother's car,” she recalls. “I had to deliver pies, so that's what I did. I delivered pies. I had to use the car, so that's what she made me do. I had to deliver pies and there were all these pies in the backseat, and I picked up my friends to go track practice.”
The deal paid off! Bolden-Pickens won a gold medal in the women’s 400-meter relay at the 1984 Summer Olympics, which were held here in L.A.
Today, she runs the 27th Street Bakery with her husband, Albert, and sister Denise. “We stick to the family recipes and the process. That doesn't change,” she says. “We named the sweet potato pecan pie after my brother — Greg's Old Fashioned Sweet Potato Pecan. And I think I like that because I get the sweet potato and then I get the feeling of little pecans, and my mother loved pecans. So, I think that's why I like the sweet potato pecan. It just, it makes me feel a part of all my family — my mother, my grandmother, my brother and my grandfather.”
More Black-Owned Businesses Flourish In LA
As historian Kyerie Blackman notes, the Second Great Migration of the 1940s-1970s would bring many Black folks to Los Angeles and spur the creation of legacy soul food and fast food restaurants, some that still exist to this day.
In 1947, a tireless and charming entrepreneur named Lovie Yancey opened Mr. Fatburger, a hamburger stand on Western Avenue. It grew into the beloved franchise Fatburger (around 300 still exist). Another one-of-a kind franchise founder was the gregarious Wally Amos, the former talent agent who opened the first Famous Amos cookie shop on the Sunset Strip in 1975.
Then there is Harold and Belle’s at 2920 Jefferson Blvd., opened in 1969 by Louisiana natives Ryan and Jessica Legaux, whose original menu offered up “Po-Boy Sandwiches, Red Beans & Rice and Filé Gumbo served only on Fridays.” And we can’t forget the legendary Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, founded in 1975 by Harlem native Herb Hudson.
Dulan’s, one of the most popular legacy restaurants in Los Angeles, has its origins in the same fertile time period.
Growing up in Oklahoma, Adolf Dulan learned recipes for fried chicken, collards, and desserts from his family. “He used to have to be the assistant,” says his son, Terry Dulan. “I remember him saying he hated it and he said, ‘This will never be how I make my living’, and that's how he ended up making his living! We have a lot of great cooks in our family. Our aunt, my aunts, his sisters could really cook. My grandmother could cook … we were real well represented in terms of cooking, and what the food should taste like.”
After opening the first Hamburger City in the mid-1970s, by 1982 the Dulan’s chain had grown to five, including one in mostly white Marina del Rey.
However, by the mid-‘80s the Dulans knew they were in trouble. “The hamburger stands started to fail one-by-one. A lot of it was intense crime issues. A lot of it was lack of capital. A lot of it was just things that an undercapitalized, small business goes through,” says son Greg Dulan.
So, in 1985, the Dulans made a radical decision — they transformed their last remaining Hamburger City, in Marina del Rey, into the soul food restaurant Aunt Kizzy’s Back Porch, using old family recipes. “With five children — and this was the part I like the best — they had to be really creative to do something to help the business survive. Because it would mean absolute disaster if it did not,” Greg says.
The restaurant flourished. “Once we rolled out those recipes, and then brought in some other help to launch the business … that was it,” Terry says. “It took off and we started getting celebrities — people would come in and say, ’Oh, I haven't had this since I lived in Tennessee.’"
According to his sons, the effervescent Adolf was a “one-man PR team,” there to greet diners such as Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant. “Very charismatic, very charming,” Terry says. “When you came through the door he would say, ‘Hey, how you doing? Happy?’ ‘How's it going man?’”
Like the Patterson family, all the Dulans were expected to work. Terry started at age 11. “I wasn’t happy about it. I was missing all those cartoons and my weekends, but everybody had to work. Everybody. It was non-negotiable,” he says.
In 1999, Adolf Dulan opened the beloved cafeteria-style Dulan’s Soul Food Kitchen in Inglewood. Today, Terry and Greg run three Dulan’s locations, which feature the same family recipes — with a little twist from individual cooks. “Even in the same soul food restaurant, they can taste a little different from day-to-day, depending on who the cook is. Because typically in a soul food restaurant, people don't really measure with a measuring cup and stuff like in a cookbook,” Greg says.
They also continue their father’s legacy of giving back to the community that has patronized their establishments for more than 40 years. “In our father's name, we have donated to churches, to breast cancer awareness. We could just go on and on,” Terry says. “My father had a history of serving and actually counseling employees on how to improve their lives, counseling customers, speaking to kids. So, we have tried to continue the legacy he set forth with giving back to the community — and that's very rewarding. And it's rewarding when people come in and they're so excited to taste the food. And, the food is good.”
Due to COVID, the Dulans have yet to see a huge spike in business due to the push for Angelenos to patronize Black-owned eateries. (The Los Angeles Times published this great list of more than 200 local Black-owned food businesses in 2020.) But with relatively newer success stories such as My 2 Cents L.A., Bludso’s, and Post & Beam, L.A.’s current Black owned restaurant scene is innovative and alive.
For longtime owners, there is pride in keeping a business open for multiple generations, in a climate where many restaurants fail in the first year.
“I think a legacy business in general that could be around for generations and generations is important for the culture and the community,” Bolden-Pickens says. “And I think there's a couple of ways that you pass on generational wealth. You do it through, in my opinion, property. You do it through life insurance, or you do it through a business. We were fortunate to do ours through a business. And that's the business 27th Street Bakery — it's now third-generation and that's important to us.”
Greg Dulan agrees. “It means everything to me because we're carrying on a family legacy, a family tradition of business, a family business,” he says. “Having a generational African American-owned business is not the most common thing. We take pride in that, and we take pride in serving the community, our customers, giving back — being a part of the culture.”