The Coast Cafe Doesn’t Serve Soul Food, but “Food From the Soul”

coast cafePhotos by Jess Benjamin.

The restaurant honors a long legacy of fantastic food and a family-first focus in Central Square.

The sounds of River Street filter through The Coast Cafe’s wood-framed screen door—car tires swishing through rain puddles, voices of passersby engaged in pleasant conversation—as owner Anthony Brooks and his daughter, Adaria, sit back in simple black chairs. The morning air is humid and heavy beneath a sky of looming grey clouds, but the pair is at ease in this place that has been their family’s livelihood for more than 12 years.

“Soul food is all about the love,” Anthony says. “No matter what dish we cook, it’s not soul food. It’s food from the soul.”

“There’s no cutting corners,” he adds. “[The food is made] the way your grandmother used to do it. People notice that. It’s very gratifying.”

Anthony and his sister initially opened The Coast Cafe in 1999. Anthony explains that they just wanted to see soul food in Central Square. The restaurant was well received, but it shuttered shortly after so that Anthony could care for his father, who was diagnosed with cancer in the early 2000s. He reopened the restaurant in 2004 after his father’s passing. “I figured we had something,” he says. “People liked the food, we had a great following, so I decided to go again.”

coast cafeTwelve years later, family—including in-laws and extended family— are as central to the atmosphere and operations of The Coast Cafe as they were on the day it was founded. Adaria recalls coming to work at the restaurant with her cousins in her youth. Anthony’s mother bakes the cakes; his aunt rolls silverware and his wife works the storefront.

“It’s a family affair here. I definitely grew up here,” laughs Adaria, spreading a warm smile beneath a constellation of dark brown freckles— freckles, she says, that allude to her family’s ancestry. “We’re part Scotian,” she notes, grazing her cheekbones with her fingertips.

Anthony explains that most of his family was born in Canada. Historically, many freed or escaped slaves from Southern states migrated to Canada, which is one of the reasons he believes most of his family members were born in Nova Scotia. But his mother was born in Mississippi, which is where the restaurant gets its Southern flavors and how the rest of the family learned to cook.

While The Coast Cafe is an homage to the soul food Anthony ate growing up—with a bit of Caribbean and Spanish influence, as his wife was born in Puerto Rico and he has in-laws from the West Indies—the restaurant is undoubtedly rooted in the tight-knit community of Central Square. Even the name, which some assume is a reference to the Southern coastline, actually refers to the coastal neighborhood where he grew up: Cambridgeport.

One customer, Anthony recalls with a smile, noted that the restaurant had expanded the definition of soul food. Plantains, empanadas and jerk chicken are all steadfast menu items alongside fried chicken, black-eyed peas and collard greens—all cooked with time, flavor and family around. “My mother always said, ‘You … take our recipes and twist it to how you like it, so it’s yours now,’” he explains.

The fusion and soul found on The Coast Cafe’s menu is, in many ways, a mirror of the neighborhood. Take a stroll up and down Mass. Ave., and it won’t take long to notice the rich diversity of cultures in the square. The city government reports that Cambridge has “long served as a port of entry for immigrants from around the world,” and 28 percent of current residents were born in a different country.

coast cafeThis is a 200-plus year legacy for the Central Square community and surrounding neighborhoods like Cambridgeport. It’s a legacy so rich and unique that the Cambridge Historic Commission launched the Central Square Oral History Project in the summer of 1998. By 2001, the commission had published historian Sarah Boyer’s book Crossroads: Stories of Central Square, which contained over 100 oral histories recorded as a result of the project.

Many of Boyer’s interviewees had lived in Central Square their entire lives, and many were born before the Great Depression. While each subject offers a unique perspective, together the oral histories show that immigration, diversity and resilience are at the heart of the neighborhood’s history. “I … was reminded of perseverance and resilience in the face of hard times, and of pride in the community we call home,” while completing the book, Boyers writes in her introduction.

Helen Peters, for example, was born in 1915 and immigrated to Central Square from Nova Scotia with her family in 1923. “There wasn’t anything you needed that you couldn’t buy within a two-or-three-block area in Central Square … We had Chinese and Italian restaraunts and Jewish delicatessens,” she told Boyer.

Peters’ first job was at the Imperial Chinese Restaurant when she was 15. Her employer was from Northern China. “His English was not good, and my Chinese was nil,” she remarked.

It’s difficult to imagine many other cities in the United States in the 1930s where one would find a Canadian waitress serving Chinese food in a restaurant owned by a first-generation Chinese immigrant—especially considering that the national quota on Chinese immigrants, The Chinese Exclusion Act, was not repealed until 1943.

The astounding thing about many of Boyer’s oral histories is not only how quickly some immigrants took ownership of local business in the square, but also how resilient residents were when the Great Depression struck. Sylvia Piltch, born in 1925, was the daughter of Romanian and Polish immigrants in Cambridge. Piltch recalls a group of men mugging her for $6.34 after a day of selling papers when she was less than 10 years old. “It was the survival of the fittest in the Depression. That’s what we were, a bunch of survivors,” she said. Piltch’s perspective on the incident—that these men mugged a child because of unprecedented economic desperation—reflects a special hardiness born into this neighborhood. Piltch, and many like her, spoke of hardship with a sense of stubborn resilience.

Hardship, of course, was not only wrought by the economy, but also nativism and racism.

Takako Sato-Salvi is another one of Boyer’s resilient interviewees. Sato-Salvi recalls her mother—a black woman, the descendant of freed slaves who had moved to Cambridge—losing her citizenship during World War II because Sato-Salvi’s father was a Japanese immigrant. Her mother was stripped of her right to vote, Sato-Salvi says, until her husband had passed away. “I had a double whammy: black and Japanese,” Sato-Salvi says of her own fight against racism. Despite constant discouragement from educators, Sato-Salvi was the first black student to be accepted into the Cambridge City Hospital of Nursing. She credits the feat to her mother’s support and consistent encouragement to fight bigotry.

coast cafe

The interviewees in Crossroads share a special identity. That Boyer interviewed and recorded so many willing participants, and that a published oral history of the square exists, indicates a fervent pride within those born and raised in Central Square. They are from Central, through times good and bad.

Anthony Brooks is no exception. He’s a Cantabrigian through-and-through. He and his children were all born in Cambridgeport. His wife’s family was in Cambridgeport by the time she was three years old. “We were born and raised here. My [parents] had been here forever,” And while his father, Major Brooks, was born in Connecticut, he was deeply rooted in the Cambridgeport community and spent 27 years working in the Recreation Department. “He was a huge community activist, very heavily involved,” Adaria says.

Anthony cares for the neighborhood in the same spirit as his father—not only through his dedication to the restaurant, but also on the board of directors at the Cambridge Community Center, where both he and his children spent so much of their childhood afternoons and summer vacations.

Back in his cozy storefront, in his low, calm voice, Anthony puts in short what so many of the residents interviewed for Crossroads say over many pages:

“There’s nothing like Cambridge.”

This story originally appeared as “Food, Family, History” in our July/August print issue, which is available for free at nearly 200 locations throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

coast cafe