Beverly Stephen / June 2012
Food Arts presents the June 2012 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to B. Smith, the pioneering African-American restaurateur and lifestyle guru whose flagship restaurant on Restaurant Row in New York City was one of the catalysts for revitalizing the neighborhood now known for feeding theater goers and the actors who entertain them.
Being located in what was once a dicey area could have been daunting, but overcoming obstacles is in Smith’s blood. The Future Homemakers’ Club at her high school in Pennsylvania did not accept blacks, so she started a new home ec club and named herself president. Determined to become a model, she moved to New York City, pursued the Wilhelmina agency, and became the first African-American woman to appear on the cover of Mademoiselle. She saw the world as part of the Ebony Fashion Fair. Along the way, she cooked to earn money. And she loved to entertain, creating stylish table settings. All of these interests would gel in the B. Smith empire.
Before Mario and Bobby and company turned themselves into brands, Smith transformed her given name Barbara into the catchier B. and capitalized on her model good looks and fashion savvy to launch herself as a lifestyle entrepreneur with a TV show and a line of home furnishings. Before Red Rooster, B. Smith’s was attracting a lively mixed crowd and feeding them updated Southern cuisine. Before the mixology craze, B. Smith’s was creating specialty drinks to complement Broadway shows.
When she and her husband and business partner, Dan Gasby, opened a satellite restaurant in the tony Hamptons, Gasby recalls, “We were told we would fail in Sag Harbor, that they wouldn’t accept a black restaurant.” Fifteen years later, it’s still thriving. When she opened another restaurant in 1994 in Union Station in Washington, D.C., her father was moved to tears because, as a black man, he had not been allowed to eat in Union Station when he returned as a veteran from World War II.
Though she is an accomplished home cook and cookbook author, Smith does not cook in her restaurants. Ever the charming hostess, she sticks to the front of the house and leaves the kitchen to her chefs. The secrets to her 25 years of success in the business? “Interacting with customers and hiring the right people.”
Her most recent projects involve the pantry and the cellar—a private label olive oil from Italy, which is already in 2,800 stores across the country, and a sweet wine from Virginia, which she’s launching on her restaurants’ wine lists and in retail locations.
Now acting is once again catching her attention. Last summer she had a part in Nora and Delia Ephron’s off-Broadway play, Love, Loss, and What I Wore. “This business is theater,” she says. “In a way I’m always acting.”