Deep South of Houston: Is a Soul-Food Restaurant Too Black for Soho?

Lola, a soul-food restaurant that featured live rhythm-and-blues acts, attracts a largely black clientele, and also went by the name Lola Is Soul, decided in 2004, for business reasons, to move from Chelsea to Soho. But once they got there, the owners—a biracial couple—ran into surprisingly stiff opposition from the Soho Alliance, a community group that has opposed Lola’s liquor license and its legal petition to have live entertainment at its new location.

Cries of racism have, not surprisingly, been leveled by Lola’s supporters. But Don Clark MacPherson, a longtime resident of the neighborhood and a member of the Soho Alliance—as well as the publisher of the Soho Journal—says that the accusations of racism are unfounded. Lola, he tells the Voice, just moved to Soho at a bad time: Frustrated by the large number of nightclubs already in the area, the alliance saw in Lola simply one liquor license too many. “Race in this issue is a red herring,” he says. “I don’t think that the type of music had anything to do with it. The objection started before anyone heard about the type of music Lola played.”

That may be true. But MacPherson might want to compare notes with Soho Alliance director Sean Sweeney about his reasons for opposing the restaurant. Lola is a place that appeals to a professional African-American set, and besides dishes like “shrimp & grits” and catfish salad, also offers “fluke en papillote,” pineapple pork belly, and pecan-crusted rack of lamb. But Sweeney apparently hasn’t looked at the menu very closely.

“I don’t think you need a martini to go with chitlins and collard greens. What wine goes with jambalaya? I can’t think of one,” he says, ridiculing Lola’s need for a license. “There is a place right next to them that sells empañadas, and they don’t serve liquor. You don’t really need liquor if you are a good restaurant to stay in business. Liquor is like cream.”

It’s hard to imagine an upscale restaurant trying to appeal to the well-dressed set and getting by on water alone, but Sweeney’s swipe at traditional African-American fare appears to lend credence to accusations by Lola’s supporters that what has motivated some in the Soho Alliance to oppose the restaurant is the combination of black music and black customers in the deluxe shopping district.

Tom and Gayle Patrick-Odeen (he’s white; she’s black) bought the restaurant from its previous owners in 1991. After taking over the eatery, Gayle added “Lola” to her name to match the restaurant. When the couple decided to move it to Soho, they applied for a new liquor license from the State Liquor Authority and were granted one.

However, once they put up signs announcing Lola’s imminent opening in the windows of the new location, at the intersection of Watts and Thompson streets, the Soho Alliance—some of whose members sit on Community Board No. 2—began mustering opposition. Lola’s liquor license, meanwhile, went through the wringer: First it was annulled by a state court, then the annulment was overturned by an appellate court. But the Soho Alliance is opposing that reinstatement, and because Lola is opening within 500 feet of three or more other license holders, a state law requires the SLA to consider input from the community board and others in the area—like the alliance.

Also, in what the Patrick-Odeens say was a clerical error by someone at their attorney’s office, their application indicated only background music, not live bands. They’re petitioning to have it changed, and the alliance is opposing that as well.

The two also say that Sweeney has been particularly vocal at public hearings about Lola, and they suspect that he was behind an effort to paper the neighborhood with anti-Lola screeds. Flyers appeared around Soho warning that Lola’s r&b music would bring “unruly crowds” and “more crime” to the neighborhood. The Patrick-Odeens saw this as a racist attack, but Sweeney denies that he had anything to do with the flyers.

And he’s not shy about firing back at the couple.

“I am not racist. [Gayle Patrick-Odeen] is from Barbados. She’s a British subject; she’s not African-American. She didn’t suffer Jim Crow, Reconstruction, lynching. . . . For her to exploit the true sufferings of African-Americans is disgraceful,” says Sweeney.

“The Soho Alliance is a group of property owners who have set themselves up as the gatekeepers of Soho,” Gayle Patrick-Odeen counters. “They think it’s their right to determine who can and who can not set up business in Soho. They are clearly a special-interest group.”

Three years after the move—and after thousands of dollars spent on lawyers—Lola has been open for a few months, but the Patrick-Odeens haven’t had the money to promote it. The absence of live acts, they say, is also hurting business. Recently, however, Lola patron Gardy Guierrer and several local promoters organized a dinner party to help get the word out about the restaurant and its conflicts. They put on a special “Save Lola’s” dinner party over two nights, with entertainment by DJ Herbert Hollar. All 150 tables were filled each night with urban professionals in business attire and cocktail dresses.

“We love this place, and the people are wrong,” said a woman at the party named Sharun, speaking of Lola’s opposition. “This neighborhood thinks because of Lola, there are going to be fights on the street. But the people who come here are TV anchors, lawyers, doctors, businessmen.”

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