Bella Jones, a private chef known for her Ode to the Black Chef blog and accompanying pop-up events, is opening her first restaurant. Named Liz & Leon’s to honor her maternal grandparents, it aims to highlight the history of Black foodways, starting with the African diaspora. Located in a turn-of-the-century building on historic Hotel Row in South Dwntwn (231 Mitchell Street), Liz & Leon’s is slated to open in early November, alongside accompanying juke joint Sweet Gigi’s.
“I’m a huge history buff, and it was important to me to have a space that told a story,” Jones says. “It’s a 1902 building. Martin Luther King Jr. protested on that street. Immigrants had businesses here. Plus, the exposed brick is to die for.”
She was originally planning to open a steakhouse in Atlanta, but a visit to the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston, South Carolina, changed her path. “I felt energy in the kitchens where the enslaved cooked. It was a transformational experience,” she says. After that, Jones renewed her focus on teaching others what it means to be Black in America through food. Since she attributes her career to her grandmother—who lives in San Antonio, Texas—and her drive to her grandfather—who passed when she was only 18—she felt naming the restaurant after them just made sense.
Select menu items, including collard greens, fried chicken, and sweet potato pie, use Liz’s recipes, while others such as oxtails with rainbow carrots and maitake mushrooms take a more sophisticated spin. “There are a lot of misconceptions about African-American food,” Jones says. “We are showing a different side of it. It’s not just fried and smothered.”
Her menu includes souse meat (a sliceable terrine made from pig head), akara (Nigerian black-eyed pea fritters), potlikker soup (made from collard greens), and warmed apple sauce and fried chicken (with apple-thyme-mint chutney). Ode to the Black Chef specials will change quarterly, celebrating Black culinarians like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson’s chefs, named Hercules Posey and James Hemmings. A 10-seat chef’s table will overlook the kitchen and feature an ever-changing prix fixe meal for five to eight courses.
Beverage director Adi Batista and wine director Randi Brady are composing a complementary drink list with craft cocktails and a variety of wines from South Africa, France, and Italy, including Black-owned vineyards. Signature cocktails include Liz 45, made with rose-infused gin, elderflower liqueur, hibiscus basil rose syrup, key lime essence, rosewater, and orange blossom, served over rosewater aloe vera ice. Grandmother Liz was born in 1945 and loved gin and roses, Jones says. Likewise, Leon 37 refers to the year her grandfather was born. He wasn’t much of a drinker, but appreciated a good smoke—hence the CBD-infused whiskey cocktail designed to taste like banana pudding.
As Liz is a stylish woman, her restaurant will be sultry and sexy. Expect notes of cream, red, burgundy, and burnt orange, and submerged roses with candles for centerpieces. A bookshelf stocked with African American cookbooks will serve as a focal point for the restaurant and 14-seat bar.
Finished eating? You may be handed a card inviting you to “Be Gigi’s sweetheart.” Take the card to the host, who’ll direct you past the chef’s table and kitchen and down the stairs where you’ll need a password to enter. Here is Sweet Gigi’s, named for Jones’s mother and sister. Jones describes it as a juke joint meets Harlem renaissance in 2023. “In African American culture, we love music, dancing, and food,” she says.
With room for 40 guests, Sweet Gigi’s will be decorated in bold jewel tones with large booths and a bar. It will feature its own cocktail list and a concise small-bite menu with items like roasted guava wings, potato hummus, and short rib flatbread with smoked gouda bechamel.
The restaurant and bar are targeting a November 4 opening, in conjunction with Liz’s 78th birthday soon after. She will, of course, be in attendance.