It’s lunchtime in Cambridge, and office workers are filling the sidewalks, hurrying to place an order at a restaurant, eat, and return to their desks. At The Coast Cafe (233 River St.), eight blocks away from busy Central Square, diners dig into plates of fried chicken and hamburgers while watching cars pass by outside of the bay window facing River Street.
The Coast Cafe has been open for 12 years, serving Southern dishes from a tiny storefront that feels more like a takeout restaurant south of the Mason-Dixon line than a Cambridge restaurant. The menu here is small but has all of the soul food classics you’d expect, like crispy, cornmeal-crusted, fried catfish; barbecue ribs; and pork chops smothered in onions and gravy. There are also Caribbean staples like jerk chicken, beef and cheese patties, and fried plantains on the menu, a nod to the neighborhood’s Caribbean population.
Along the right-hand wall, in front of a few bar stools, are different Caribbean hot sauces for guests to use. On the day that I’m there, I notice two diners devouring huge cheeseburgers near the window. The Coast Cafe has two cheeseburgers on its ‘specialties’ menu: the Coast Burger, topped with barbecued pulled pork and cheddar cheese, and the T-Mac Burger, which has macaroni and cheese on top.
Tony Brooks, chef and owner of The Coast Cafe, was born and raised in Cambridge and opened the restaurant with his sister and father. "We wanted to try and make some good food with good flavor," he says of The Coast Cafe’s beginnings. "The recipes came from my mother, who grew up in Mississippi, and my father, who was from Connecticut. I put my own little twist on them now." After his father passed away, Brooks took over the business, and he operates it as the sole owner. In addition to running his restaurant, he is also a member of the board of directors for the Cambridge Community Center and works with local organizations.
The dish that has brought The Coast Cafe the most attention is the fried chicken. The first time that I walked into the restaurant, it reminded me of my grandmother’s house in Virginia. She made fried chicken in a cast iron pan using shortening as the fryer oil and during the process of frying batches of chicken, and for a long time after she was done, the entire house smelled like the well-seasoned oil. The Coast Cafe smells the same way.
"We’re known for our fried chicken," Brooks says. It has crunchy, golden skin, and the meat is juicy, with the perfect amount of salt and spice. Brooks says the restaurant goes through 300 pounds of chicken every week, and the fried chicken combination plate, which comes with two sides and a piece of cornbread, is one of the restaurant’s best-selling items. He won’t tell me the recipe, but he does say that the chicken is marinated for 24 hours before it’s fried. The side dishes are made in true Southern fashion: the macaroni and cheese is baked, not wet; the collard greens are cooked with smoked turkey; and the candied yams are falling apart, heavy with cinnamon and allspice.
Being a Southern-inspired restaurant in Boston comes with challenges — mostly, convincing people that good soul food can be made in Boston. One of the things that Brooks hears the most from diners is that they didn’t expect to find soul food in this neighborhood. "Customers will say to me, ‘We didn’t know you were here, and we didn’t know you could get soul food in Cambridge,’" he says. When I tell Brooks that many chefs in the area love his food, he’s surprised. "I wish they would introduce themselves. They come here all the time, and I don’t even know it."
Currently, Brooks is working on opening a second location for The Coast Cafe, and he anticipates it being open within a year. When I ask him what he wants new guests to know about his restaurant, he tells me that it’s all about being a "family-oriented business with great atmosphere and great, flavorful food done right. Just come and enjoy." And don’t forget to say hello.
All photography by Korsha Wilson; Boston Mainstays illustration by Emily Phares