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Storied soul food spot returning to Central District two decades after closing

By: Anthony Monzon

Storied soul food spot returning to Central District two decades after closing 01:55

SEATTLE - A legendary soul food spot is set to return to the Central District after two decades.

"To Ms. Helen Coleman, the best cook in Seattle," reads a message from 'The Greatest,' Muhammad Ali, to one of the Seattle's most storied chefs.

"When people wanted real soul food, I mean, real soul food, you know, neck bones, macaroni and cheese, fried catfish, gumbo, the real deal - that's when they came to Helen's Diner," said Jesdarnel Henton, Helen Coleman's daughter.

Henton still remembers the smell of coffee percolating and bacon frying at Helen's Diner while working with her mom over the decades. After opening in 1970, the eatery became a favorite spot for regular Seattleites and superstars alike.

In fact, Jesdarnel still laughs when looking back at the time Richard Pryor walked through the door, and she didn't recognize him.

"He says, 'is this a soul food restaurant?' I said, 'yeah.'" Henton continued, "and he says, 'well, where are the flies?' I said, 'baby, ain't no flies in here, this is Helen's Diner."

Coleman would keep her skillet hot for three decades, until the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake caused her diner to be condemned.

"It split the building," Henton said. "When she went to see the damage in the place, she opened the door, and the water just rushed out."

But the damage couldn't wipe out the community's yearning for the iconic place to reopen. When a 2012 survey found Helen's Diner was one of the top three businesses Central District community members wanted back, Jesdarnel got a call from her mom. 

"She said, 'I'm telling you, you need to come home. You need to come home now because I want to do it again.'"

The family is working on a new version of the old classic. It's called 'Ms. Helen's Soul Bistro,' and it'll be right across the street from the original.

"She stepped in here, I said, 'Mama, this is Helen's,' and she just started crying," said Henton. "She said, 'I thought you were lying to me.'

Jesdarnel shares the bistro will have the same feel as the original Helen's, "just a little swankier." In the meantime, she's ecstatic to be back in the neighborhood, surrounded by familiar faces who helped keep her family's legacy alive.

"There's so many people that have rallied around us to get this done, and we're not there yet, but we're working, we're getting there, and it's happening. It is actually happening.

Henton says it may take until next August to open the bistro. When it does, she hopes to teach community members how to cook their own wholesome soul food.

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