Auburn Avenue is the birthplace of Martin Luther King and the beating heart of black Atlanta. Round the corner is Georgia State University, a collection of concrete monoliths that are as utilitarian as they are soulless. But walk up the steps past the security guard and buried inside the building you’ll find Kenley’s Restaurant – a breakfast and lunch spot that serves a buffet of soul food at low prices. Everything apart from the food is styrofoam, cardboard or plastic. Cups, cutlery and plates are all throwaway as if the place had invested in landfill shares.
But the grub makes up for it. From Southern favourites like biscuits and grits to chicken, beef and pork sausages, baked potatoes with peppers, jumbalaya rice, bacon, eggs, Kenley has whatever your rumbling tummy desires. It’s practical, low cost food that’s freshly and lovingly made. And then you season it with synthetic margarine from a blue plastic bottle.
For those not familiar with Southern cooking, biscuits are just like scones, whereas grits are a tasteless porridge made out of corn floor-sweepings. “It tastes delicious if you put shrimps / honey / butter / hell, anything inside”, Southerners will tell you earnestly. But for anyone outside the Dixie states, grits are best used as wallpaper paste.
African-American celebrities go crazy for Kenley’s fare. In the 15 years he’s been in business, he’s built up a famous following. It seems like everyone who’s someone in Atlanta’s black aristocracy has sent out for his food, maybe while recording a new album, or resting between takes on set. The walls of the café are covered in signed photographs of Kenley, the man himself, and any celebrity you might care to mention: from Jay-Z to Ludacris, Vivica Fox to Wanda Sykes. Then there are ministers, congresswomen and other community leaders: Kenley continuously adds to his walls of fame.
So how did he build his reputation, given that his café is tucked away from view?
“I advertise on local hip-hop, gospel and R&B stations”, he says, “and that’s the way I get my name out. I also know many people in the community here.” That seems to be an understatement.
So if you happen to stop by in ATL, be sure to drop into Kenley’s to say hi – and have a taste of the food that keeps the city’s music scene going. And be sure to have your picture taken.