ST. PETERSBURG — Before the doors opened at 11 a.m. Saturday, a crowd had gathered outside.
Some of them came for signature dishes that have given the original Sylvia’s Queen of Soul Food restaurant in Harlem, N.Y., a global reputation for dishes such as chicken and waffles, fried catfish bites and sautéed chicken livers.
Others came to witness the fulfillment of a longstanding promise by city leaders to restore a revered old events hall that once was at the heart of St. Petersburg’s black community but slowly had fallen into decline like many other buildings in south St. Petersburg.
For the first time in decades, the old Manhattan Casino building on 22nd Street South was bustling with life.
“This is something we need in the south side,” said longtime city resident Windell Robinson, who was waiting for an order of ham, sweet potatoes and rice.
“I think it’s going to be a hit,” he said.
“We’re hoping,” his wife, Edith, added.
The couple was among the first patrons at the new Sylvia’s restaurant. They sat next to a window with a view across the street of a vacant lot owned by the city.
“We’re hoping the city does something over there, too,” Windell Robinson said.
As the restaurant filled up in the first hour, wait staff hurried to deliver plates filled with barbecue ribs, mashed potatoes and fried green tomatoes from a kitchen window that opens to the 150-seat dining room.
A line of eager customers formed in the building’s foyer.
Jeremiah and Wanda Mincy, sister Sandra Vazquez, their niece and two grandchildren couldn’t wait to be seated.
“We’ve been counting the days. In fact, we came by here once a week just to check,” said Wanda Mincy.
Sandra Welch and Mary Collins have dined at the original Sylvia’s and wanted to see if the new locale — the only one outside of New York — lives up to the reputation.
Welch was taking her time with fried chicken, collard greens, and baked macaroni and cheese before moving on to a plate of fried salmon and catfish bites.
“We’ll be back,” Welch said.
“And we’ll bring company,” Collins said.
The fresh contemporary look of the restaurant’s interior demonstrates the total transformation of this aging two-story building, which was once host to music legends such as Duke Ellington and Ray Charles.
After remaining closed for years, the Manhattan Casino was included in a multimillion-dollar redevelopment plan for Midtown after riots in the neighborhood in 1996.
The city spent almost $3 million to renovate the building in 2005, but it struggled to find a tenant.
In May, the nonprofit Urban Development Solutions and city officials embarked on a $1.6-million renovation to convert the building’s first floor into Sylvia’s.
The building’s second floor serves as an event hall.
Betty Newsome, one of the restaurant’s owners, said the first hours of Saturday’s opening were a bit overwhelming as she greeted an onslaught of people and directed staff to make sure customers weren’t left waiting for food.
Seeing all the community support on opening day was gratifying, though, she said.
“When we got here this morning, people were waiting at the doors and that made me feel really good,” Newsome said.
With several businesses including an LED technology manufacturer and a microbrewery opening just to the north on 22nd Street and a Wal-Mart and massive St. Petersburg College campus opening to the south, there’s hope Sylvia’s will be the first of many additions to this part of the city.
Patron Wanda Mincy said she wanted to be among the first to welcome what looks to be a big change for the better in Midtown.
“We’re making history,” she said.