Sitting in the first booth at Annie Belle’s Famous Wings and Greens on Euclid Avenue and Federal Boulevard, across the street from a retail center that’s seen better days, Jackie Lacy recalled her daily routine before this restaurant, already known locally for its signature fried chicken with waffles, opened in late January.
“I used to do laundry, and I used to spend a lot of time at home,” she said.
Now Lacy, who volunteers at New Creation Church in southeastern San Diego, spends as many as five hours a day in the restaurant networking with local community members who stream through, she said Monday afternoon, papers from her various meetings scattered on the table before her.
“I have things I need to do!” she said with a chortle. “But this is such a nice, pleasant atmosphere. I can do my washing later.”
She had just finished meeting a playwright staging a local production.
“There’s a place for the community now,” she said. “The community comes here. Isn’t it wonderful?”
In many neighborhoods, a new restaurant can open without causing so much as a ripple. But in a community like southeastern San Diego, where takeout joints, taco stands and fast food chains dominate its few and struggling commercial strips, the arrival of a sit-down restaurant like Annie Belle’s — complete with wait staff — is reason to take notice.
Residents, business owners, and the city councilman himself point out that there are only two other full service sit-down restaurants in all of City Council District 4: Magnolia’s Restaurant at the Market Creek Plaza retail center down the street and a Sizzler on Imperial Avenue. At Annie Belle’s, owned by two local brothers, the gold-trimmed mirrors, clatter of real silverware and linen table cloths that come out at dinner time have infused new pride into this community, where residents often have to get on a freeway if they want to dine out.
For years, casual meeting spots have been scarce in this part of the city. Since it opened about five years ago, the Starbucks at Market Creek Plaza has often served as the default locale for meetings.
But in just three months, Annie Belle’s has become a hub of local activity, a place where community groups, businesspeople, and politicians meet. Church groups like Lacy’s that once lingered in their churches’ parking lots after services, or reconvened at restaurants like Denny’s or Hometown Buffet in City Heights, now pack Annie Belle’s each Sunday.
Any given morning can find City Councilman Tony Young or his challenger, Barry Pollard, sharing a southern breakfast with local residents, while a few tables away Census workers discuss their door-to-door rounds for the day. Tuesday morning, a local chapter of the United Domestic Workers met over breakfast there.
“We like to support the local family-owned businesses,” said Doug Moore, its executive director, “and this is one of the only ones around here.”
Across the community, nearly everyone I spoke with seemed to have heard of Annie Belle’s, even if they hadn’t had the chance to eat there. Many knew the owners, brothers named James and Maurice Tyler, personally.
“It can get crazy,” said Roni Moore, the restaurant’s general manager. “People don’t have any other place to go with this kind of ambiance.”
Brittney Washington, a hostess, pointed to the flat screen televisions on one of the restaurant’s walls. “Where else around here can you find that?” she asked. “Where else around here can you find table cloths?”
Perceptions of District 4 and southeastern San Diego as crime-ridden and as lacking an economic base have discouraged investors and businesspeople from opening up shop there, said Councilman Tony Young. The relative lack of commercial property and the dilapidated condition of existing retail strips have compounded the problem, he said.
Throughout the Diamond neighborhoods surrounding Market Creek Plaza, empty lots surrounded by chain link fences are punctuated by signs touting future retail and housing developments that the Jacobs Foundation, a local philanthropy, hopes will spur local investment.
But Annie Belle’s proprietors didn’t want to wait. They saw an opportunity to bring to southeastern San Diego the kind of cooking that they and others in the community used to drive to Los Angeles to find in a sit-down restaurant.
They chose their Euclid Avenue location just north of State Route 94 because it is near a freeway exit. The brothers recognized that though their business relies primarily on local residents, many local businesses have also failed because they haven’t attracted customers from outside the community. The restaurant is across the street from a shopping center that has been unable to find a stable anchor since a Fedco department store closed down years ago.
“We needed a place like this,” Maurice Tyler said. He was surprised by how well residents responded, he said, but then again, not so surprised. “We don’t have any place like this in this community that keeps people connected.”
Its menu is modeled after those of restaurants like Roscoe’s, a popular southern restaurant in Los Angeles, and spiced up with the special recipes of their late grandmother, Annie Belle Wells, who taught them to cook meals from her native Mississippi while she raised her family in Michigan, where her husband worked in the auto industry.
Several of her descendants now work at Annie Belle’s, where, they say, they settle minor disagreements by invoking her memory. “If Grandma wouldn’t like it, it won’t fly,” Maurice Tyler said. The Tyler brothers employ 20 staff, among them uncles, nieces and family friends paying their way through college. Their mother helps out in the kitchen on Sundays.
At a time when the community is still suffering closure among its few businesses — most recently a Mexican grill at Market Creek Plaza — the new jobs have been a minor boon. Waitress Keilani Todd, for example, is saving up so she can resume studies at UCLA.
Her brother Thomas’ eyes widened as she served him a heaping plate of chicken. It was his first time at Annie Belle’s.
“Look at how everything is nice and polished,” Thomas Todd, 18, said. “It looks like a restaurant that could be in La Jolla, like a 5-star restaurant, but they chose to put it in this community. That’s nice.”
Nearby, Jackie Lacy kept on networking from her booth, greeting customers who passed through the doors.
“Even though I spend all of my money here, I’m very pleased with what I see,” she said.