In the early 1920s, a sudden hunch that Virginia’s Hampton Institute aimed to make him a farmer sent Richard Huey fleeing west to law school. It was in Los Angeles, in 1925, that the undergrad stumbled into the Hollywood Bowl, cast as King Solomon in W.E.B. DuBois’ historical pageant, “Star of Ethiopia.” Something no doubt comes over a man directed to sit on an ivory throne in a pearl-encrusted Persian robe. The experience steered Huey back east, but this time to New York.
The Richard Huey Players created and staged numerous original works at various Harlem venues. But the actors’ singular court became Huey’s own eatery in the basement of 172 West 135th Street, right next door to the still new Harlem YMCA tower. With his mother’s help, and some inherited culinary wisdom from his roots in Monroe, Louisiana–where his grandmother was described as “unassailably the best cook in town”–Huey opened up Aunt Dinah’s Kitchen.
Huey credited some inspiration for his restaurant’s local color from his tours abroad. He’d observed that a Rumanian restaurant owner in Paris “kept it Rumanian, and a Russian kept his Russian.” Following suit, he advertised Aunt Dinah’s Kitchen “down home grub, avec une atmosphère Negré (with a black feeling).
Huey lined the walls with newspapers, a tribute to his recollection of Southern restaurants walls where the papers served “partly to help keep the wind out and partly for decoration.” The distinctive fare included fried chicken (“browned in a hot skillet and then slowly cooked in a Dutch oven”), barbecue, Mexican chili, sweet potato pie and East Indian curry. Customers sat communally around a big square table, where Huey says “we’d settle world politics and race relations and the theatre and music.”
From 1933 until his death in 1948, Huey’s “down home grub” drew such black and white luminaries (and no doubt a number of stage-struck ordinaries), as Ethel Waters, Langston Hughes, Carl Van Vechten, Richard B. Harrison,Olive Borden, Georgette Harvey, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Frederick O’Neal, Count Basie and others to the place many knew affectionately as Rubert Huey’s “hangout for hams.”
Photo credit: Municipal Archives, 1935-1941. 1944. Via source