Café Virgil, a new soul food restaurant in north Tulsa, was born out of a combination of happiness and tragedy, according to owner Deborah Brown.
“We had a catering business in this building, and this side was vacant,” she said recently in a corner red booth at the eatery. “My brother wanted to fix it up for a family reunion and maybe start a restaurant, but he died during surgery last March.
“I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have any experience in the restaurant business. A lady in the kitchen (Denise Walker), who is an excellent cook, said, ‘I’ll help you, Miss Brown.’ I told her if she would cook and teach others how to cook and make it something we could be proud of, we would do it.”
Café Virgil opened a month ago in a stand-alone building on Mohawk Boulevard just west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. It is named after Brown’s brother, Virgil Smith Jr., a former military man who did three tours of Vietnam, and her father, Virgil Smith Sr., who operated a trash service in her hometown of Vinita and a juke joint in the back of her family home.
If Brown’s name sounds familiar, it likely is because of her role as executive director of Deborah Brown Community School, one of the city’s first charter schools, she founded in 2000, and Sankofa Middle School of Creative and Performing Arts.
We went by for dinner on a recent cold evening, and a large-screen video of a fireplace on one wall actually made the room feel warmer.
A word of warning up front: A credit card machine was planned to be installed by this writing, but it was cash-only when we went there.
We were told by our attentive and friendly server, Katie, that the kitchen was out of rib-eye steak and baked potatoes, so my wife opted for the pan-seared lemon pepper fish ($13.99). Because we are talking soul food, I could have selected fried pork chops, fried catfish, chicken-fried steak or fried chicken. I could not pass up the four-piece fried chicken dinner ($13.99).
The fish dinner arrived with two whitefish fillets that were flaky and mild-tasting with a little latent spicy seasoning on the back of the throat. They were tasty with or without the tartar sauce that came with them, and they sat on a mound of brown wild rice.
I told Katie that I was partial to dark meat chicken, if that was possible, and she responded with two legs and two thighs. They were standard size, not too large, not too small, and had a light, crispy breading. The meat was tender and so hot I had to let the chicken sit for a bit while I tried my side dishes.
Our sides included a fresh garden salad with purple onions, carrots, tomatoes and croutons; smothered cabbage that still had a bit of crunch to it, earthy and tender pinto beans and chunks of sweet potato that were sprinkled with cinnamon and swimming in a sweet syrup.
Café Virgil offers several desserts. We decided on the warm peach cobbler ($3.59). The peaches were standard fare, but the crust was terrific, flaky and not too thick.
Entrees are half price for ages 8 and younger. General manager Eric Mikel said a new menu would be in place soon that would reflect lower prices on some items.
Tea and soft drinks, served in fruit jars with handles, along with coffee, are the only beverages currently. Brown said alcoholic beverages will be available when the proper licenses are acquired.
I liked the multicolored casual utensils that complemented the multicolored dinnerware. Some walls had a linen-like covering and some dark wood. One wall is filled with emblems of black fraternities and sororities. Brown said she was a member of Delta Sigma Theta at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah.
Other walls are decorated with African artwork, sports jerseys and posters, including one of local basketball hero John Starks, an Indian Territory map and a few mirrors.
“People like to look at themselves,” Brown said.
Seating is along a red wall banquette that seats 16, nine high-top tables and a corner booth that holds six.
One corner has a small stage, and Brown said she will be booking live music Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings when possible.
“This building was a fish market years ago, and then it was a law office for many years,” she said. “It was very neglected when we moved in. I hope we can bring it back to life.”