For the month of February The Heights will be highlighting Black-owned restaurants and businesses throughout Boston.
Nestled in a corner of Nubian Square, Soleil, a local breakfast-lunch spot in Roxbury, fosters a sense of community alongside its homestyle food. After opening in May 2018, the restaurant, under the leadership of chef and owner Cheryl Straughter, has gained a loyal following within the community.
In 1996, Straughter opened her first restaurant called Keith’s Place, serving soul food, which became popular at its Grove Hall location and remained open for 10 years. Following this, Straughter enrolled in Johnson and Wales University’s culinary arts program in Providence, R.I., became a recruiter for the school, and eventually returned to Boston to take care of her mother while simultaneously taking night classes at Simmons University in Fenway, pursuing a master’s in social work.
Opening Soleil has in many ways brought her full circle, and according to Soleil’s website, “Straughter is returning both to the food business and to Nubian Square, a commercial district that figured prominently in her childhood.”
Soleil’s atmosphere is warm and welcoming, with hearty soul food and family-style meals. According to Keith Allyn Motley, Cheryl’s son and the co-owner of the restaurant, Soleil serves up “Southern-style food with a twist.” Motley, who also works at Northeastern University’s African American Institute, said that when he is not working at the university, he can usually be found at Soleil.
“For breakfast, we do a lot of different specials—fried chicken and waffles, a whole bunch of different types of omelets, [and] breakfast sandwiches,” Motley said. “For lunch, that’s more of the soul food. That’s fried chicken, barbecue beef ribs, beef brisket, macaroni and cheese, yams, collard greens, things like that.”
As for a signature dish, Motley said that Soleil is known for its shrimp po’ boy sandwich and barbecue ribs. The Louisiana Classic, Soleil’s name for its shrimp po’ boy, is a sandwich featuring fried shrimp, lettuce, tomato, and a homemade remoulade sauce.
“My favorite thing is the po’ boy Shrimp sandwich, the one they got over there,” said customer Queen Gloria Johnson. “And, I always get it with extra shrimp ’cause I’m greedy.”
Another customer, Yvette Wilks, said she had been waiting two weeks to come and get the Louisiana Classic.
“I’m just coming off of a two week, so to say, diet, and I’ve been looking forward to this sandwich for the last two weeks,” Wilks said. “And, in this little bag [are] my little sides—my mac and cheese [and] my collard greens.”
When choosing the restaurant’s name, Straughter thought back to her first restaurant, Keith’s Place, which was named after Motley. The name Soleil has a similar significance.
“The first thought in naming my business was to call it Keith’s Place, which was my first restaurant in Grove Hall from 1996 to 2006,” Straughter said on Soleil’s website. “Believing in legacy led me to name this restaurant after my granddaughter. Her name is Maya Soleil. In French, Soleil means Sun. Maya is warm and loving. Soleil is a tribute to her.”
In accordance with its name, Soleil fosters a warm and welcoming environment for both newcomers and regulars alike. Wilks came to enjoy her Louisiana Classic over more business-like discussions about plans for the Boston Jobs Coalition with her friend and colleague Angela Williams-Mitchell, while Johnson said she came to Soleil to meet with her friend Jeffrey Gilliare.
“I’ve been coming here for two years,” Gilliare said. “ … Honestly, to be true to myself, I come here five days a week. I come Monday through Friday. The only days [they’re] closed [are] Saturday [and] Sunday.”
The family-like ambiance of Soleil makes it easy to understand why the restaurant has such a loyal customer base, and according to customer Danielle Ruffen, that is one of the things Straughter is known for.
“What I’ve noticed about her is that she cares about the community as a whole,” Ruffen said. “She doesn’t just care about specific groups, she cares about the total community … and she helps whenever she can. She cooks meals for [the] elderly, for organizations where women are in shelters, so she does a lot of, like, stuff away from the restaurant for the community.”
Soleil is currently open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., offering socially distanced in-house dining as well as takeout and delivery options through Grubhub. Be it its welcoming environment, its delicious soul food, or the inclusive community, it is safe to say that Soleil is a bright spot in Nubian Square.
Featured Image by Maggie Leahy / Heights Editor