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Profeta hopes new restaurant can rekindle Newark's jazz history

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Duke's Southern Table, a new eatery on Clinton Street that is a combination soul food restaurant and jazz nightclub.
Duke's Southern Table, a new eatery on Clinton Street that is a combination soul food restaurant and jazz nightclub. - ()

If you don't know about Newark's rich history with jazz, Paul Profeta can fill you in.

He’ll tell you about the city’s reign as a jazz capital decades ago, about the vast jazz museum housed at Rutgers University, about the Newark-based jazz station WBGO.

“Most people just don’t know that, except if you’re over 60 and you remember the Newark of the ‘40s and the ‘50s,” said Profeta, a West Orange-based real estate investor and philanthropist. “Newark just had a lot of clubs … and the performers lived in Newark or Maplewood, South Orange, Montclair. This was just a hotbed.”

But he also said the city “is just totally starved for jazz — and the people who love it are still there.”

It’s a major reason why he has opened Duke’s Southern Table, a new eatery on Clinton Street that is a combination soul food restaurant and jazz nightclub. Along with his partner Vonda McPherson, chef-owner of Vonda's Kitchen on West Kinney Street, he hopes the business can fill a void in New Jersey’s largest city — starting with its grand opening Friday.

The restaurant holds about 120 and occupies what was once Scully's Publick House, putting it right in the middle of Newark’s central business district. Inside, he said, it’s now an upscale décor with a stage for jazz performances and a baby grand piano, creating a venue that he hopes can feed off the music scene and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

“What we’ve tried to do is create a very sleek, sophisticated metropolitan atmosphere — a lot of flat black and silver and white,” he said. “We want you to think you’re in a very sophisticated urban setting.”

Duke’s Southern Table also is the latest business to open with the help of the Profeta Urban Investment Foundation, which gives mentorship and no-interest loans to minority entrepreneurs around Newark. Started in 2007 with a $2.5 million donation from Profeta, the program has helped launch or support nine businesses and is preparing to help six more.

And partnering with McPherson fills another void that Profeta sees in Newark. He said the Brick City up until now hasn’t had an African-American-owned, upscale restaurant — much less one that could serve as a gathering spot for the city’s black population of nearly 150,000.

Evidence of the demand for such a place is Vonda’s Kitchen, a popular soul food eatery in the Central Ward.

“She’s packed every day and night,” Profeta said. “It’s a little place, but it’s packed, which is proof of what I’m saying.”

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