Think of a spot where you can sit down for a nice dinner in Overtown. Can’t? Yeah, exactly.
Until a few months ago, that’s because there wasn’t one.
That’s the problem longtime couple Karim Bryant and Nicole Gates ran into over and over again. As Overtown homeowners, they were invested in the neighborhood, but couldn’t find a place to sit down and have a nice meal with their children after 7 p.m.
“You would have to go everywhere else to enjoy a dinner, and that bothered me, because in other neighborhoods, families could go and enjoy dinner in their neighborhoods, around people that they know,” Bryant said.
So, they decided to open one themselves. They started with a food truck, which Bryant and Gates ran for about six months in 2013. Then they set up shop in a concession stand at Gibson Park in 2016, with the goal of making healthy food for the kids in the neighborhood.
It caught on, so they decided to take the next step.
In March 2017, they opened Lil Greenhouse Grill, which sits just across from Gibson Park along N.W. 3rd Ave. It’s open until 10 p.m., making it the sole sit-down restaurant in Overtown that’s open for dinner.
The restaurant is quaint, a charcoal portrait of Overtown artist Purvis Young rests at the entrance while cozy booths line the pastel-green walls while a handmade wooden bar rests at the back. Lunchtime regulars take their usual booths, laughing for hours over their meals. A plate of freshly glazed BBQ smoked chicken wings sits on the kitchen counter while the aroma of chicken and waffles wafts through the air.
“I grew up watching ‘Cheers.’ I love ‘Cheers.’ So I always thought if I had a place, I would want it to have that type of feel, where you come in and everyone knows your name. And even if you come in and you don’t know anyone, they treat you like family,” Bryant said.
Opening a restaurant in Overtown
In the 1960s I-95 was built straight through Overtown. The neighborhood, once considered the Harlem of the South, was decimated. Since then, it’s struggled to develop the same levels of prosperity as other parts of Miami, grappling with crime, poverty, and most recently a deadly opioid epidemic.
Bryant says this perception of Overtown is what keeps restaurants out. But he says it wasn’t hard to open a restaurant in the neighborhood, at all. He was able to easily secure the permits he needed, both to open the restaurant and the bar that serves beer and wine. And he doesn’t think it’s an issue of getting enough customers, either.
“I always wondered why there’s nothing here, the amount of money people spent [on food] is a lot, but it’s not being put back in the neighborhood,” he said.
But he’s confident it will work.
“When people say ‘I can’t believe you guys are open that late in Overtown,’ well, the people [who live here] want us to stay open later.”
Bryant grew up in the neighborhood, coaching kids at the neighborhood park and talking often with the elderly population. His neighbor built the bar he uses at Lil Greenhouse Grill and his friends helped him install the TVs, tables, and booths.
“We’re here to service the community because it’s a disservice that you can’t find anything to eat in the neighborhood. … We’re trying to change the perception of Overtown and how people think about customer service,” he said.
Cooking with mom
Growing up in Overtown, Bryant was never really into food. He was more of a sports guy, playing basketball and football through high school.
“I used to cook with my mom so that’s who really taught me the basics of how to cook. Once I got into the kitchen, I was pretty good at it and I flourished automatically in the kitchen,” he said.
“We cooked pretty much everything, I learned how to fry chicken in a skillet — that was old school. … That’s where I got my first experience with sauces and gravies, and realized that was the key to the meal. And seasonings, too.”
Now he’s been a chef for more than two decades in restaurants all over Miami, starting with a Fuddruckers in Coconut Grove. He made his way to Hard Rock Café, then to The Capital Grille, where he worked for nine years. After that he had a seven-year stint at Miami Beach’s Smith & Wollensky, then Prime 112 and STK.
Now he’s got his own kitchen.
“This has been a dream of mine forever. Once you’ve worked in as many places as I have you tend to have an idea of what people want and what they don’t want,” Bryant said. “Over the course of a few years you know pretty much what foods go together and what flavors go together.”
Not just ‘soul food’
Given all of his experience cooking everything from salads to steak, the one thing he doesn’t want to do is be put into a box. Lil Greenhouse Grill is not just a “soul food” restaurant, he stresses, because he does everything. The goal is just to keep it healthy and fresh.
“Eventually we’re going to have a community garden where young people will learn how to care for natural things,” explained Gates. “Then how cool would it be to let them have their own salad and wraps out of the food they grow?”
Lil Greenhouse has been immensely successful since it’s opening in March 2017. And there are a few other concepts like the Groovin’ Bean Coffee Shop which opened last year, and Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson’s new restaurant on the way, that they think will bring big changes to the neighborhood.
But both Bryant and Gates say that if it wasn’t for neighborhood staples like Jackson’s Soul Food and Two Guys who have been in the neighborhood for years, then “there wouldn’t be room for any of us.”
“It wasn’t easy for us to do this and if we didn’t have each other I don’t know we’d be here right now,” Gates said. “We did this out of pocket — no CRA assistance, no loans. This is the community we live in and have decided to invest in, so we took that risk. … But, this isn’t easy.”