The story begins with a woman named Emeline who was born in the 1800s in Weeksville, New York.
That she was born is Weeksville is significant, because it was America’s second-largest settlement of free blacks before the Civil War. The small township was founded by James Weeks, a free slave, who purchased the swath of land in 1838 from another freed slave and then sold the property to other black residents, who eventually named the community after him.
The settlement, which is now considered a part of the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, thrived over the years, building its own hospitals, schools and stores, spawning what became the area’s first middle-class black community.
When Emeline—whose parents were homeowners in Weeksville– was old enough, she married Gladstone Atwell, moved to MacDonough Street in Bed-Stuy and had 14 children. Her 14 children and most of her children’s children also grew up in Bed-Stuy.
On July 1, Linda DeJesus–the oldest of the grandchildren– along with 17 more family members, opened a breakfast diner at 373 Lewis Avenue. They named it Emeline, after their family’s wonderful matriarch, and on the wall of the diner is a large illustration of their family tree where the name “Emeline” sits high at the top.DeJesus points to her grandmother, and then her mother Anna on the tree, and then over to her aunt Joan, her uncle Gladstone Atwell (who Gladstone Atwell Junior High School was name after). They all lived in the same house on MacDonough… Her eyes sparkle while she tells the story of her family.
But her family’s story continues. The most recent chapter picks up with Emeline’s Diner, which opened in July 2014 and was the longtime dream of DeJesus’s uncle.
“This was my uncle Charle’s idea; this building belongs to my uncle, and he likes diners. He had been talking about it for years,” said DeJesus, who taught psychology at Medgar Evers College before she retired. “It was his thought for the longest that we should have a restaurant that was family-owned, so all of the investors are family.”
They have an official committee called The Cousins Committee that organizes trips, events and economic development for the family. So everything in the restaurant is financed by family.
Emeline’s serves breakfast/lunch all day and brunch on the weekends (no dinner), and all of the food is made on-site. Brightly lit and cutely painted, Emeline’s prices are truly diner prices and the food tastes like it comes straight out of your grandmother’s kitchen. The tables are mostly 2-tops, and there’s an area for outdoor seating—unusual for businesses along Lewis Avenue– which will open in the warmer months.“Everything is made fresh, every day, our biscuits, our muffins, nothing is shipped in,” said DeJesus. “It’s quality food in a homey environment.”
“Emeline was the quintessential grandmother, she lived in the kitchen. When you have 14 children and two grans in your household, you wake up in the morning and you start in the kitchen,” she said.
“When I went to bed at night, she was in the kitchen. During that era, women didn’t come out and do the kinds of things that they’re doing now. When granddaddy came in, everyone sat together, we all ate together. We had to discuss everything we were doing and we felt comfortable sharing it with the entire family.”
DeJesus says that’s the same feeling the family has tried to recreate with Emeline’s— no pretense, no frills and where patrons are comfortable chatting with each other. And it’s truly a family-oriented diner, the menu, the lighting and the tables, all fashioned in an old-school-eatery kind of way.
What’s on the menu? Pancakes, omelets, chicken-and-waffles, coconut French Toast, with a few special lunch items, including curry sweet potato salad and ginger cornbread.
“I just come in to make sure it’s clean, and I eat,” said DeJesus’s Aunt Joan, who is 83. “I think my mother would be pleased if she saw the restaurant; my father would too. Bed-Stuy hasn’t changed much. The people who stayed maintained their properties. No one would have been able to come back here if it hadn’t been for the black families maintaining it.”
“Everyone supports what everyone else is doing in the community,” added DeJesus. “The other businesses don’t interfere with each other, because we all open and close at different hours. In fact, the surrounding restaurants come here for breakfast.”
Emeline’s is open from 8:00am until 4:00pm on weekdays and from 9:30am – 4:30pm on weekends.
“The idea is that we wanted it family-friendly,” said DeJesus. “We just wanted it to feel like ‘a good idea.’”