Heading out the door to grab lunch at the Welton Street Cafe in Five Points, I looked down at my lawn-mowing jeans — the ones with the knees blown out — and my weekend T-shirt and realized that maybe I should change. A few minutes later, I was out the door again in gray pants, a sweater and black leather shoes. It was Sunday, after all, and the churchgoing regulars were bound to be out in their finest; I didn't want to appear disrespectful. Once I was comfortably seated at a window table inside the cafe, I realized I had made the right decision. The place wasn't too crowded, but groups of women in colorful spring outfits, some with hats, occupied several of the bigger tables; men in suits and ties ushered their families into the dining room; and the takeout counter served up bagged orders almost non-stop. This wasn't some roll-out-of-bed, hangover brunch — it was a social occasion worth making some effort for.
From the outside, the cafe blends in with the blandly institutional Five Points Plaza it calls home. The sign is a little high on the outside of the building — easy to miss from the sidewalk — and the main entrance could just as easily be that of a dentist's office or a government agency. The Department of Motor Vehicles was a neighbor in the same plaza until recently (a craft brewery now occupies that space), to give you an idea of the general aura. In fact, I walked right past the door once before figuring things out, so I took the opportunity to stroll a few blocks north on Welton Street, passing the entrance to the new Dunbar Kitchen & Bar just as a crowd of tipsy girls in pointy, paper birthday hats poured onto the sidewalk, squinting into their phones and jostling passersby. A block past that, a row of bicycles leaned against Purple Door Coffee, which opened in Five Points two years ago. This neighborhood is changing — even if the food at Welton Street Cafe remains a constant.
Inside the cafe, things are far from drab: The tidy dining room is decked out with house plants in every corner, silk roses on the table and lace curtains in the windows. Handwritten signs in the small lobby ask that you not seat yourself, lest the order of things gets a little less orderly.
The restaurant sign advertises "Southern and Caribbean Cooking," and since I'll be exploring Denver's soul food eateries this month, the Southern part of the menu is what interested me most (although the list of "Island-style pates" — savory meat pies — was tempting, too). Southern dishes included fried chicken and fish (whiting, catfish and perch), pork chops, sandwiches and a host of sides. There are lunch specials, but not on Sundays.
Although the kitchen has a reputation for excellent fried chicken, I skipped the fried dishes in favor of pork chops in brown gravy, along with sweet cornbread, collard greens and black-eyed peas. Everything was prepared simply and plated without fuss — a meal not far off something my mom would have served when I was a kid, swapping out collards for spinach and black-eyed peas (which she broke out only on New Year's Day) for kidney or pinto beans. Mothers across the country have been cooking skinny pork chops to well-done and moistening them with pan sauce since long before pork became a highly regulated commodity. It may not be the kindest way to cook a chop, but the cross-cut meat pulls apart easily enough and soaks up gravy like a sponge.
Smoky, slow-cooked collard greens and stewed black-eyed peas, simply seasoned to allow the peculiar floral flavor of the legume to come through, are part of the South I never experienced as a kid; we lived in Texas but my parents are Canadian. The common ground between their cooking and soul food is that many of their recipes are just country dishes adapted for city living.
In Texas, a rare treat was a weekend trip to a country catfish house, where we would fill up on hush puppies and fried fish with sides of coleslaw and potato salad, all items on Welton Street's menu. The differences between soul food and Southern food aren't huge, at least as manifested on the Welton Street menu. Perhaps the biggest differentiation is that the cafe is black-owned and with a largely African American clientele, something that was much more common in the neighborhood's bygone, bustling era. With newer, hipper businesses moving into Five Points, restaurants like the Welton Street Cafe could become more and more rare. We have our fingers crossed that a new generation of Denverites will discover the eatery's charms — and its generous portions — and gain a little soul in the process.