Save for a trip to Charleston or St. Simons Island, or maybe a viewing of Julie Dash’s visually spellbinding film “Daughters of the Dust,” the unique culture of the Gullah Geechee people of the Sea Islands of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida isn’t very well known.
But at the new Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen and Bar on Main Street in College Park, co-owner and chef Gee Smalls aims to change that as much as possible by cooking and spreading the word.
Smalls grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, with Gullah family roots in nearby James Island. The restaurant is named for his late father, Virgil F. Smalls. And the recipes for most of the dishes at Virgil’s were passed down from Gullah relatives.
In keeping with tradition, the menu prominently features rice and seafood dishes, and the descriptions are playfully written with a nod to Gullah patois.
That means Jam Up Wings are “seasoned and marinated, drizzled wit’ Gullah gal sauce.” Shrimp and Crab gravy is “white shrimp cooked in crab gravy ova steamed white rice.” Shawk Bites are “tenda shark meat seasoned, lightly battered and fried golden.” And Watuhmelon and Cucumba salad is “mix greens tossed ina herb dressing wit’ spiced pecan, pickled shallots and goat cheese on a watermelon slice.”
Located in the former Duck Club Speakeasy space, the focal point of the cozy, narrow storefront is a long, inviting bar, set off by a colorful mural of Virgil F. Smalls by local artist C.Flux.Sing.
Last week, Gee Smalls sat down at a small hightop table in front of the shrine-like mural to talk about Gullah culture, and how his family traditions inspired him to open a Gullah restaurant with his husband, Juan Smalls.
“I’m a Gullah Geechee boy at heart,” Smalls declared. “It’s just who I am. About 12 years ago, my father, whose name is Virgil, passed away. In our culture, we strongly believe in the power of spiritual guides and our ancestors. So since then, he’s just led my steps all the way — from me being introduced to my now-husband to everything we’ve been through together for the past 12 years.
“When it was time for us to open our bar and restaurant, it was only natural for us to name it after Virgil, as well as to celebrate the oldest black culture in America. Because, like I said, it’s who I am authentically. It’s what I like to cook. I’m also the executive chef here, so these are all my family recipes. And it’s just a place of love and affirmation for everybody to come into the space and feel wanted and welcomed, enjoy good food and enjoy good drinks.”
Speaking about the menu at Virgil’s, Smalls said it was largely inspired by the foodways of the Sea Islands.
“We are from the coastal region, so you will find a lot of seafood,” he said. “But our ancestors were brought over to be rice farmers. They grew rice in West and Central Africa, and along the coast where we reside, we eat a lot of rice because of our ancestors. It’s a staple in our homes. If we have collard greens, it’s on top of rice. Green beans is on top of rice. Everything is on top of rice.
“We have five or six different rice dishes on our menu, and a lot of seafood, and a lot of classic soul food dishes, as well. We pretty much take the white rice and make it into our own rice. Our No. 1 rice is red rice, and we take that and transform it into all different types of dishes. Shark meat is something a lot of people haven’t had before. But where we’re from, we catch shark, and we eat a lot of shark.”
Besides the kitchen, Smalls said the bar is an integral part of Virgil’s, both in terms of the selection of beer, wine and cocktails on the menu, and the conviviality of the bar itself.
“It’s a kitchen and bar, so half of our restaurant is a bar, and we definitely want people to feel like this is their neighborhood Cheers,” he said. “You can come by and meet friends, and have a drink. We have several signature cocktails, including the Get Tight Up. In the Gullah Geechee culture, tight up means to get tipsy, so this is our strongest drink on the menu, almost like a Long Island Iced Tea. Virgil’s Tea is another signature, made with Maker’s Mark, a little lemon and a little mint. That one’s about the old folks who had their tea, but it wasn’t really tea in the cup. It was something a little more special.”
Overall, Smalls said there’s a lot of education that goes along with the Virgil’s story.
“What excites me the most is that we can reach people through the food, and show the culture through the food,” he said. “A lot of people are curious about it. They want to know what the food is like. Sometimes they’ve never heard of it, and they can’t pronounce it. But most black people here can touch and trace their roots back to the Port of Charleston. And everybody loves culture, and learning different things, so it’s great to have people come in and soak up everything we have to offer.”
3721 Main St., College Park. 404-228-4897, virgilsgullahkitchen.com.
Scroll down for more images from a First Look at Virgil’s Kitchen and Bar in College Park
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