Red Rooster in Miami Wants to Showcase the Culture and History of Overtown
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Derek Fleming says he envisioned a specific scenario for the design of Red Rooster Miami, the Overtown restaurant he opened with celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson last year.
“It was a warm, humid night in Miami in the 1960s. Muhammad Ali and Aretha Franklin enter the room. Ali is wearing a light linen shirt and perfectly pressed trousers. His shirt is half unbuttoned and the sleeves rolled up. Miss Aretha is wearing it.” Sparkling dress. And even though it’s Miami in the summer, she wears fur. They walk arm in arm and the restaurant just stops. All eyes are on them because they are kings. “
Fleming describes the imaginary entrance as actually being transported back in time when Ali was the greatest of all time, Aretha the queen of soul, and Overtown the pulsating pulse of Miami’s black culture.
Fleming is a partner of Red Rooster Overtown and, together with Miami’s Grove Bay Group, opened the Overtown offshoot of New York’s popular Red Rooster Harlem after a lengthy delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The restaurant, which opened last December, is located on the site of the iconic Clyde Killens pool hall, where Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke and other black legends hang out across the street after performing at the Lyric Theater. Muhammad Ali and Aretha Franklin have also been spotted at Killens and may even have strutted arm in arm together on a particular evening.
Some believe that a building can retain residual energy from past moments. Go to Red Rooster and you might agree. The bar, dining room, and outdoor terrace are filled with a mix of colors and textures. If you take a closer look, you’ll see artwork by Rashid Johnson, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, and other African American artists mixed with memorabilia celebrating the people who flocked to Overtown in its prime.
“People are going to die to see Red Rooster in Florida. It doesn’t recreate Overtown, it picks up where we left off.”
One afternoon, Donnamarie Baptiste, who serves as the restaurant’s director of culture and arts, gave Bea Hines a tour before lunch. Hines, 83, is a Miami historian and the first black woman to work as a reporter for the Miami Herald. Hines was born in Williston, Florida in 1938 and moved to Overtown when her mother fled an abusive marriage when she was 5 years old. Hines recalls growing up just a few blocks from the pool hall that Red Rooster now stands in. When asked if she had ever visited Killens’ house before, she said “nice girls” had not gone there – although she shared a memory: “I walked past the pool hall and saw this beautiful blue Cadillac. The door opened and slammed Nat King Cole. ”
Hines can tell many memories of an overtown with music, Easter parades and church choirs. It’s a far cry from the neighborhood’s later reputation. Approximately bounded by NW 20th Street, NW Fifth Street / North River Drive, N. Miami Avenue, and NW 12th Avenue, with a piece west of Interstate 95 cut out of this potential space for the Jackson Hospital complex “Colored Town” and later “Central Negro District” were drawn and quartered in the 1960s with the construction of I-95 and the Dolphin Expressway. Overtown was once a thriving black community of over 30,000 people and now has 8,300 residents.
If Red Rooster Harlem is any clue, the arrival of the Overtown location bodes well for the neighborhood. After the coronavirus hit New York, Red Rooster Harlem partnered with World Central Kitchen to provide meals to local people in need. Red Rooster Overtown did the same – before it even opened. And like its sibling in New York, the Overtown Red Rooster has a stated commitment to recruiting within the community
Despite the ongoing problems with running a restaurant amid a pandemic, the increasing availability of vaccines is brightening the mood at the Red Rooster and creating a welcome undercurrent of energy on the outdoor patio. Guests of all ages, colors and walks of life enjoy the food from head chef Tristen Epps, whose menu contains both Caribbean and Mediterranean culinary notes.
“There are things, old and new, that I want to highlight,” Epps told the New Times. “I wasn’t there in the 1950s, but I can’t imagine a lot of caviar getting through here.”
What was served Whole fish, devilish eggs and oxtail.
The dining room at Red Rooster Overtown.
Photo courtesy of the Alchemy Agency
“I don’t think there’s a black person who has no connection with the oxtail. It was a poverty court, but it shows history in the most elegant way,” says Epps, who recently created a menu to celebrate Black History Month, which included African American , Caribbean and American dishes of the South. This menu, explains Epps, followed the slave trade. “There was no South without the slave trade.”
Epps, who uses copious amounts of greens from Red Rooster’s hydroponic garden, sees the ever-changing premium as a metaphor for Overtown itself.
“To me, it speaks to the transformative nature of who we are,” he says. “What might be available today might not be available tomorrow. We have the opportunity to start over and also push ourselves to be the best representation of our culture. The neighborhood should be a model for Black Excellence. We are partners in this . “
Donnamarie Baptiste notes that Overtown is already changing. For one, Wynwood, once a neglected neighborhood, is crawling south towards its border with Overtown.
“Change is inevitable and change can be a good thing,” says Baptiste. “Overtown won’t look like it does now in five years, but it will be black and brown people. The hope – the intent – is that the community can once again offer the best of black and brown.”
Baptiste points out that tourists flocked to Overtown in the past.
“That will happen again,” she says. “Marcus [Samuelsson] already has his following. People are going to die to see Red Rooster in Florida. It’s not the re-creation of Overtown, it’s picking up where we left off. “
According to Bea Hines, Overtown was a neighborhood where people could go to church and then listen to Lena Horne perform. Where students from Booker T. Washington Senior High were treated to demonstrations by Carmen Jones and lectures by Tuskegee Airmen during the convention.
Derek Fleming says the music will return to Overtown as soon as the upstairs lounge in the restaurant is expanded and it is safe again for people to gather in bars.
“This is really an evolution of the engagement. This room is for everyone. How often do you have this in Miami?”
Although not completely renovated, the room is already clad with dark wood paneling and the bar is upholstered with green Naugahyd. The decor is 1940s pool hall chic, a tribute to its former owner, Clyde Killens. While proudly taking a short tour of the unfinished space, Derek Fleming is once again taken to another time and place. This time it’s the near future. He sways gently on his feet and paints the picture.
“Imagine, it’s 2am and you’ve had dinner at the rooster and are upstairs to listen to music and have a drink. Your friend text you and asks where you are and you tell them for having this great time in Overtown.
“This is really an evolution of commitment,” says Fleming, absorbed in his reveries. “This room is for everyone. How often do you have this in Miami?”
Can a restaurant change the trajectory of a neighborhood?
Bea Hines believes it can cause a spark.
“I would love to hear music in Overtown and I would love to see our churches fill up again,” she says. “I always want to be proud of our history and our culture. I don’t want this to die. Derek and his partners have thought this through. And here lies our future.”
Red Rooster Overtown. 920 NW Second Ave, Miami; 305-640-9880; redroosterovertown.com.
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Laine Doss is the food and liquor editor for the Miami New Times. It was featured on Eat Street by Cooking Channel and in the Great Food Truck Race by Food Network. She won an Alternative Weekly Award for her contribution on what it’s like to wait for tables.