Why Red Rooster Is More Than Just a Restaurant
With locations in Harlem and Overtown, it's a celebration of Black culture and history
In 2017, Marcus Samuelsson announced that he would bring his Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster, to Overtown; it officially opened about a year ago, in the middle of the pandemic.
A narrow staircase leading up to the lounge at Red Rooster Overtown (920 NW 2nd Ave. Miami) is plastered with a collage of big names in Black culture: Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Ray Charles. The lounge and the restaurant are located at what used to be Clyde Killens’ Pool Hall — in a neighborhood that’s been called the Harlem of the South. The pool hall closed in the 1980s and much of Overtown — which lies just north of Downtown Miami — fell on hard times.
Samuelsson and his partners, Derek Fleming and Michael Simkins, wanted the restaurant in a historic property to become an integral part of the community. At one time Overtown had been a thriving Black community of more than 30,000; it currently logs a population of 8,300.
“I’ve been asked to open restaurants on Miami Beach, but I don’t want to be the chef that plops a restaurant down and leaves,” says Samuelsson. When the opportunity arose to occupy the former pool hall, Samuelsson knew it was the right place for Red Rooster. “Once I learned that Sam Cooke and Muhammad Ali stayed in that neighborhood, I knew there was cultural significance there.”
Before he could open the restaurant, Samuelsson needed to feel the pulse of Overtown. “Being a chef, I asked myself questions — how can I participate and create community?” He says he moved his family to Overtown during the pandemic in an attempt to learn more about the neighborhood.
Fleming researched Overtown’s history in order to bring the dining room to life. “My craft is in real estate development, so for me, the double reward is to build something that is a stimulant to the neighborhood. I look at opportunities to rebuild and invest in a culture. None of this is boilerplate,” says Fleming. “It’s about making something that will entice people to come visit.”
Some elements of Red Rooster Harlem were reiterated at Red Rooster Overtown, including the horseshoe bar. “That emulates the counter culture of Harlem, where people would hang out,” Fleming says. “That was very intentional.” Fleming also decide that the bar would not have any televisions. “It compels people to engage and interact.”
The restaurant also has a collection of art from Rashid Johnson, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, and other African-American artists, mixed with memorabilia celebrating the people who flocked to Overtown in its heyday. “Once the design started to come together, we said the art is equally important to seeing the room in another dimension,” he says. “We wanted to celebrate artists, painters, sculptors who are the next generation of leaders in the art space. How could we start a conversation about African-American art?”
Fleming adds that food, design, and art are meant to work in harmony. “It’s Black experience coming together in an intentional way. It comes from learning and being humble.”
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As for the effects of the pandemic on the restaurant, when it had to temporarily close, “It was painful for the 80 employees we had,” says Samuelsson. The partners pivoted to turn his restaurant into a community kitchen for a stretch. “That became something we could be proud of,” he says.
When Red Rooster finally reopened, Miami responded warmly to the decor and the soulful cuisine by chef de cuisine, Tristen Epps. His menu traces the Black diaspora from African roots to the Caribbean and American South, with dishes like heritage pork and plantains, North African spiced squash, and charred suya octopus, as well as greens and grains or shrimp and grits.
Samuelsson maintains the best way to educate people is through food. “How do we have people experience Black culture? Our guests are curious to know,” he says. “We’re giving people a way to explore in a delicious way.”
Fleming adds that Red Rooster Overtown is more than just a restaurant. “It is a cultural hub,” he says. “Those layers of food and music and art build upon a story and history that is so rich and profound.”
When I go to a restaurant, it's to enjoy food. Not to "celebrate Black culture and history." As if.