Juan Smalls never got to meet his father-in-law, Virgil, who died two months before Smalls met his husband, Gee.
But there’s little doubt in Juan’s mind that he brought the pair together.
“In the Gullah culture, we firmly believe in the power of ancestors,” Smalls said. “We believe that Virgil has been guiding our steps for the past 11 years.”
So when it came time for Juan and Gee to pick a name for their new College Park restaurant, it was obvious what their inspiration would be.
“It’s an homage, a love letter to (Gee’s) dad,” said Juan. “When we decided to honor Gullah culture through cuisine, we thought, why not name it Virgil’s?”
Virgil is getting his due and then some at Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen & Bar. The eatery features a menu that leans heavily on Smalls family recipes that Virgil and other relatives passed on to Gee when he was growing up on James Island in South Carolina.
Gullah is “a cultural marker and represents deeply embedded African American history and roots,” Nneka M. Okona wrote in a 2016 AJC story. “While Geechee is different and refers to descendants of the sea islands of Georgia, the two combined, today, represent stretches of land from Amelia, Island, Florida, to Sandy Island, South Carolina, and a collective group of people hailing from West Africa, who brought their ethnic traditions with them while enslaved — traditions which are still alive and well in South Carolina.”
Virgil’s menu features small plates in Gullah dialect-named categories including “From Da Rice Field” (including okra perloo rice cooked with okra, bacon and chicken broth; crab rice fried with crab meat, bacon and Gullah seasonings); “From Da Yard and Watuh” (whole whiting deboned, head-on, fried or broiled; “shawk bites,” shark meat seasoned, lightly battered and fried); “From Da Garden” (fried okra mix with veggies); “Jus’ Fuh Fun” (macaroni and cheese; gullah eggrolls stuffed with red rice, fried cabbage and white shrimp); and “Fuh Ya Sweet Tooth” (Chucktown Chewie Sundae with brownie, pecans, salted caramel ice cream, chocolate fudge and powdered sugar).
There are several vegetarian and vegan options, as well.
On the beverage side, look for a selection of beers and wines, as well as cocktails with Gullah names including the Bumpee n Ginga made with Seagram’s gin and ginger ale and muddled lemon, and the Git Tight Up, made with muddled fruit with vodka, gin, rum, whiskey, triple sec, fruit liqueur and sour.
Juan said the use of Gullah dialect and names on the menu was part of an intentional choice to stay true to Gullah cuisine, which they hope to use to educate guests on Gullah culture.
“There’s a huge educational piece here with the dialect, the cuisine and the history,” Juan said.
Part of that is also sourcing ingredients as much as possible from the Gullah region, including using Carolina shrimp.
“We want to be as authentic as possible,” he said. “We want to hold true to the historical value of the ingredients.”
Juan and Gee have had a few years to perfect their vision for Virgil’s -- after running an event planning company, the pair started the non-profit Gentlemen’s Foundation, which provides support to LGBTQ/SGL black men. About five years ago, they wrote the business plan for Virgil’s, but were waiting for the perfect location.
Enter College Park, which Juan said the pair fell in love with after seeing the “culture, architecture and history” that existed there. They also loved the space they found, a roughly 2,000 square-foot former speakeasy with exposed brick.
“It matched our vision to a tee,” Juan said. “We want to create a space for us, by us, and bring a sense of community to the south side.”
He said the restaurant will event
Virgil’s will be open for lunch only from 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Tuesday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday, 3 p.m.-1 a.m. Saturday and 3 p.m.-midnight Sunday. Weekend brunch will likely be added in the future.
3721 Main St., College Park. 404-228-4897, virgilsgullahkitchen.com/
Scroll down to see the menu for Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen & Bar
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