“Soul Food Mecca” is Back in Business

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Spread the word, y’all: Donnie’s Place is back. The popular soul food restaurant at 60 NW Fifth Avenue in Delray Beach re-opened in May after a storage room fire forced its closure for four months. Donnie’s Place is now cleaned up and fixed up, with new ceiling tiles, comfortable tables and booths, and the same friendly service as before.

“Word is getting out,” said owner and chef Donnie Dobson. “We’ve been busy. When I was closed, people really missed my food, because what I serve, nobody else has.” Dobson serves home-style Southern dishes—also known as soul food—in large portions. Fried chicken wings are his specialty. Other items on the menu include baby back ribs, oxtails, tilapia, haddock, fried okra, collard greens, and cornbread. The restaurant opens at 6:30 a.m. and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. But Dobson estimates that 90 percent of his business is derived from takeout sales. Local folks from all walks of life converge on Donnie’s during the lunch and dinner hours to pick up hot, hearty meals.

A Neighborhood Icon Donnie’s Place represents one of Delray’s oldest continuously run African American-owned businesses. Its roots date back to the 1970s when Dobson and his stepfather, Richard Parker, ran a takeout window from inside the Paradise nightclub on West Atlantic Avenue. Dobson and “Pop” Parker subsequently opened Parker’s Kitchen in the 700 block of West Atlantic. It was a take- out soul food haven for more than 10 years.

In 2001, Dobson purchased an existing restaurant building—formerly occupied by Bud’s Chicken and Seafood on South Federal Highway—and moved it 60 NW Fifth Avenue. After a long renovation process, Donnie’s Place opened in 2007 as a full-service restaurant, replacing Parker’s Kitchen. “The restaurant speaks to the traditions of the neighborhood in every respect,” said Charlene Jones of the nearby Spady Cultural Heritage Museum. “Donnie is an entrepreneur in an area where African Americans traditionally started businesses to serve their own when they weren’t welcome in other parts of town. And Donnie’s food speaks to our culinary traditions, bringing back good memories of family and togetherness.” The restaurant is surrounded by local history. Delray’s first African-American school, #4 Colored, was opened in 1895 across the street, and one of the school’s first teachers, Frances Jane Bright, lived on the lot now occupied by Donnie’s. As Delray grew, NW and SW Fifth Avenue became the commercial and social hub of the city’s black community. In recent years, Donnie’s Place has played an important role in the revitalization of NW Fifth Avenue and the West Atlantic corridor, said Elizabeth Burrows, Marketing and Grants Manager for the Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). “We knew that Donnie’s Place could bring foot traffic to the area day and night, seven days a week, so the CRA supported the business by matching a county grant when they were getting started.” Burrows said. “We are delighted to see this business bounce back from the fire and pick up right where they left off.”

More than just a restaurant, Donnie’s Place is a popular social spot, hosting a number of family parties, poetry readings, and even karaoke. On any given morning, you’re likely to find a circle of local retired businessmen holding lively discussions over coffee, grits and eggs. You may also spot Delray Beach Mayor Woody McDuffie, happily dining on the same southern dishes his grandmother used to make.

“I went for years trying to find those old foods again,” McDuffie said. “At Donnie’s I found collards and neck bones, souse and other old foods that reminded me of my childhood, but breakfast really did it for me. There were the grits and eggs and my long-lost smoked sausage.” Inspiring the Next Generation Donnie Dobson was raised just blocks from where his restaurant stands today. He played football for Carver High School, helping to win the state football championship in 1969. By then he was already working in the food service industry. “I started with my stepfather at the Seagate Beach Club when I was 14. We both worked there, in the kitchen—he was a cook and I worked in the pantry. We did that for years,” Dobson said, “and then we started traveling.” The pair worked in restaurants in Connecticut and New Jersey in the summer, returning to the Seagate for the winter season. Today, one of Dobson’s own sons, 43-year-old Darryl, works at Donnie’s Place. Meanwhile, Dobson serves as a role model and mentor for neighborhood youths he’s known since they were babies.

“I talk to young people just about every day,” he said. “A couple of girls came in here the other day—they’re about to graduate, and I told them, ‘If you don’t do anything today, you’ll have nothing tomorrow, so you’ve got to sit down and make a plan for yourself.’” Dobson’s own plan is to broaden his business by attracting new customers and introducing a variety of menu choices with fewer calories. But don’t worry—Donnie’s Place will always have plenty of “comfort food” to warm your soul. Paula Detwiller writes professionally for the CRA and other clients. Her website/blog can be found at www.pdwrites.com