Michigan’s best-kept secret: Indulge in 8 Black-owned Michigan restaurants for a soulful experience

By Lisa Green
July 27, 2023

MICHIGAN—You don’t have to travel south to get good Southern food. Michigan offers some of the best soul food this side of the Mason-Dixon line—and most of it comes from Black-owned businesses.

What is “Soul Food”?

Soul food—as many of us know it in Michigan—originated from the Deep South states of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. But those kitchens built on recipes from African, European, and Native American cuisine.

It’s important to remember that the dishes we love now were greatly influenced by the limited food rations given to enslaved people in the South.

Enslaved people often needed to stretch their food portions to feed multiple people, and many required high-calorie diets to help their bodies perform arduous labor. This gave way to the soul food tradition of frying food, breading with cornmeal, and mixing meat into vegetables.

Black churches of the late nineteenth century also impacted the development of soul food, as the African American community came together for church gatherings and Emancipation celebrations. Black-eyed peas, sweet potato pie, and red drinks were often served at these gatherings, becoming soul food staples.

Soul Food’s Journey North

The Great Migration happened between 1910 and 1970, when African American people migrated to the Midwest states, as well as the Northeast and West, to pursue economic opportunity and escape intense racial discrimination and the Jim Crow laws of the Southern states.

Southern culinary traditions came with them, and in many ways helped to establish a sense of community and belonging in these new cities. The first soul food restaurants were often Black-owned businesses that also served as community hubs for neighborhoods.

Today, soul food restaurants are still great places to enjoy a delicious meal with your loved ones, or meet new people. We’ve rounded up some of Michigan’s best—with family traditions and history in every dish.

(Detroit Soul via Facebook)

Detroit Soul (Detroit)
2900 8 Mile Rd, Detroit, MI 48234
14300 E Jefferson Ave, Detroit, MI 48215

This Detroit restaurant with two locations isn’t just an excellent option for soul food—it was named the best in Michigan.

LoveFood.com included Detroit Soul as its Michigan entry on a list of best soul food restaurants by state. Detroit Soul is a farm-to-table operation run by brothers Samuel Van Buren and Jerome Brown. The restaurant concept was inspired by their childhood family reunions down South. The gatherings centered around cooking and enjoying food. The dishes featured at Detroit Soul are family recipes with a healthier twist.

As of 2022, the brothers have opened a second location in a historic former Kresge department store location thanks to help from a Motor City Match cash grant of $60,000. Their hiring practices are community-oriented, staffing only local hires and including a youth program for giving teenagers paid experience.

Visit Detroit Soul on their websiteFacebook Page, or Instagram Page.

(Detroit Vegan Soul via Facebook)

Detroit Vegan Soul (Detroit)
19614 Grand River Ave, Detroit, MI 48223

No matter your dietary preferences, you’ll love walking on the vegan side of life at Detroit’s first 100% plant-based restaurant. Detroit Vegan Soul specializes in plant-based alternatives to soul food favorites.

Detroit Vegan Soul is both Black-owned and woman-owned, shared between executive chef Erika Boyd and general manager Kirsten Ussery. The duo formerly operated a catering service and opened Detroit Vegan Soul in 2013. Recently, Erika Boyd was featured as one of several entrepreneurs in Mastercard’s Black Women Small Business Campaign.

The recipes are “veganized” forms of family recipes. All ingredients are plant-based and organic, with no preservatives. Some vegan alternatives they feature in recipes include catfish tofu, cornmeal-battered tofu, chargrilled tempeh, Southern fried Oyster mushrooms, Cajun-style veggie sausage, and barbecue tofu ribs.

Visit Detroit Vegan Soul on their websiteFacebook Page, or Instagram Page.

(Cornbread Restaurant and Bar via Facebook)

Cornbread Restaurant and Bar (Southfield)

29852 Northwestern Hwy, Southfield, MI 48034

Formerly known as Beans and Cornbread until 2021, the Cornbread Restaurant and Bar has quite a legacy. They’ve been serving southern comfort food since 1997, earning fans such as Kobe Bryant, Steve Harvey, Laurence Fishburne, and even the late Aretha Franklin.

The artwork and memorabilia on the walls are inspired by the Spike Lee movie “Do the Right Thing” and feature Black historical figures. But this isn’t the only important part of Black history inside Cornbread. Owner Patrick Coleman has been producing cardboard box “shoebox lunches” during Black History Month for about five years, which pays homage to African Americans such as his mother and great-grandmother, who could not eat in train dining cars in the era of Jim Crow segregation laws. Coleman’s commemorative shoeboxes feature key figures of Black history, like NASA mathematician and “Hidden Figure” Katherine Johnson.

The Kitchen Sink is a fan favorite on the menu; the platter features lobster, shrimp, catfish, gumbo, collard greens, rice, and fried okra.

Visit Cornbread Restaurant and Bar on their websiteFacebook Page, or Instagram Page.

(Cuppy’s Best via Facebook)

Cuppy’s Best (Ypsilanti)

2469 Washtenaw Ave, Ypsilanti, MI 48197

Home businesses are typical today, but they weren’t so common when owner Andrea White got Cuppy’s off the ground. Her home-cooked meals were the talk of the dinner table, and she decided she could try making a profit from them. White started by catering small events out of her home but eventually sold so much food that she burned out a refrigerator and a few stoves from overuse. With the encouragement of her husband at the time, White decided to open a restaurant. She’s been passionate about serving up soul food ever since.

Cuppy’s has had several locations throughout the years and gradually grown into its 2022 and current dine-in location on Washtenaw Avenue. Everything in White’s kitchen is made from scratch using personal and family recipes. The restaurant’s bestsellers are candied yams, macaroni and cheese, baked beans, and collard greens.

Why Cuppy’s? The name comes from a nickname White had as a child—her grandfather gave her the name when she was so small she could fit into the cup of his hands.

Visit Cuppy’s on their websiteFacebook Page, or Instagram Page.

(Forty Acres Soul Kitchen via Facebook)

Forty Acres Soul Kitchen (Grand Rapids)

1059 Wealthy St SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49506

One of the best soul food restaurants in Grand Rapids is an upscale, sit-down establishment. And aside from rich food, Forty Acres Soul Kitchen is also full of culture.

Co-owners Darel Ross and Lewis Williams met through the community nonprofit LINC Up, which provides resources and training for start-ups and small businesses. The pair opened Forty Acres in the Wealthy Street Business District in 2018. They started the restaurant to bring the made-from-scratch cuisine they remembered from their childhoods to Grand Rapids. They are committed to social responsibility and support the Black Lives Matter movement. The food, beverages, and ingredients are all sourced from Black-owned businesses. Forty Acres also boasts Michigan’s only cognac bar, a spirit that’s been part of Black culture for about a century. 

The name Forty Acres reflects a historical plan for slavery reparations that would have redistributed Southern plantation land in 1865. The promise included government distribution of 40 acres and a mule to formerly enslaved people—a promise that never materialized. The offer was rescinded following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and succeeding President Andrew Johnson ordered the land be returned to the Southern whites. To the owners, the restaurant represents the opportunity afforded by the ability to create something yourself.

Visit Forty Acres on their websiteFacebook Page, or Instagram Page.

(The Candied Yam via Facebook)

The Candied Yam (Grand Rapids)

2305 44th St SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49508

Located in the Breton Meadows Shopping Center in Grand Rapids’ East Kentwood neighborhood, the Candied Yam is more than just a little soul food restaurant. It’s also owner Jessica Ann Tyson’s American dream.

Tyson was adopted and spent a few years in the foster care system. Between bouts of food insecurity, Tyson ordered food from a restaurant in East Kentwood. When it closed in 2016, she decided to seize the space and the opportunity. And the Candied Yam was born.

Tyson is now a philanthropist who has contributed over $115,000 in high school and college scholarships. Community is important for Tyson, which goes into her Southern comfort food dishes like fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and more. The business will soon expand into a second location on Division Avenue in the summer 2023.

Also, check out Tyson’s side project, The Beastro, a restaurant for dogs commemorated to the memory of Tyson’s beloved dog, Skip. The “Chipotle for dogs” experience serves human-grade food for your pooch on “barkcuterie” boards. The Beastro is located next door to the Candied Yam.

Visit the Candied Yam on their websiteFacebook Page, or Instagram Page.

(Gregory’s Soul Food via Facebook)

Gregory’s Soul Food (Lansing)

2510 N Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, Lansing, MI 48906

Open since 1971, Gregory’s Soul Food was the first Black-owned bar and grill in Lansing to get a liquor license. Fifty years later, owner and lifelong Lansing resident Gregory Eaton is a pillar of the Lansing community.

Eaton was the first Black lobbyist in Michigan to work for a multi-client firm. He still makes liberal use of his people skills with Gregory’s Soul Food. Eaton doesn’t focus on profit with the restaurant. Instead, he focuses on maintaining Gregory’s as a community space where anyone can feel at home. Plenty of Lansing locals flock to Gregory’s for a taste of home or a hearty conversation with Eaton. Still, the delicious chicken wings and shrimp are also big draws.

Visit Gregory’s Soul Food on their Facebook Page or Instagram Page.

(Tia’s Soul via Facebook)

Tia’s Soul (Saginaw)

3319 E Holland Rd, Saginaw, MI 48601

This little restaurant in Saginaw is located just off I-75, and it’s worth a stop no matter where you live. 

Tia’s Soul is a labor of love between lovebirds and business partners Barnes and Letia Reynolds. Barnes decided to name the restaurant after Letia as a way of admiring how she puts her soul into her work.

Tia’s Soul relocated from downtown Saginaw’s SVRC Marketplace to its brick-and-mortar location in 2021. The menu is rotating, but some customer favorites include Southern-fried catfish, ribs, wings, and delicious desserts like strawberry cake and banana pudding.

Visit Tia’s Soul on their Facebook Page or Instagram Page.

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