ST. PETERSBURG – For the past 60 years, there has been an Atwater cooking up delicious food somewhere in St. Pete. The late Elzo Atwater, Sr. and wife Mattie purchased the Harlem Restaurant on 22nd Street from Wilbur and Annie Wright back in 1965. Together they ran the restaurant until 1977 when they purchased the building on Ninth Street, which is now Martin Luther King Jr. Street, and opened up Atwater’s Cafeteria.
What was once a staple in the community closed down back in 2011 after 38 years of service. Since that time everyone has been asking, “When are you reopening?”
For years the Atwater family made a name for themselves in the community. The whole family had a part to play in the business. In 1997 Elzo, Sr. died and Mattie followed in 2003. It was then left up to the nine children to keep the tradition alive. However, after eight years they decided they needed some time off.
Eric Atwater, however, has never stopped cooking or dreaming of reestablishing the family business. “I was washing dishes, I was serving, I was cashing out,” he said speaking of his duties from the early age of three at the old Atwater’s Cafeteria “That’s what we did.”
And for the last three years, Atwater has spread the word that he was bringing the business back. He continued to cook his smoked chicken and ribs in the parking lot in front of the old restaurant and at the Sunday Market on the Deuces, which will reopen in October.
“A lot of people were really enjoying my food and I was saving my money,” said Atwater who credits his time at the Sunday market for giving him the push and vision he needed to open back up.
“I was putting out good food so people were starting to follow me,” he continued.
In February his dream came to fruition. Atwater’s is back in business and he’s passing down the family tradition by having his 10-year-old daughter Erika by his side in the kitchen.
“Everybody is so impressed by her serving and ringing the cash register and doing all that stuff,” said Atwater who renamed the joint Atwater’s Best BBQ and Soul Food. But if you’re looking to grab some beef short ribs, oxtails and collard greens, don’t look for it along Martin Luther King Street anymore, Atwater’s is now located in the Skyway Mall at 4301 34th St. S.
“It’s exciting to be over here,” he said. Atwater remembers the old Maxi Mall in its heyday and feels his restaurant is bringing back life to the mall. Doors open at 10 a.m., but if you want first dibs on the four-hour slow-cooked smoked chicken and ribs, or perhaps the mouthwatering pork chops, you better not wait till the 8 p.m. closing time.
“I got seafood gumbo and some buffalo wings left,” he said to a passerby checking out the new establishment and quickly rushed to get her a sample. The food is cooked fresh every day and business has been so good, it’s hard to keep up with the demand.
Food is all Atwater knows. When others were playing football and baseball afterschool, Atwater was heading off to church or working nonstop by his parent’s side.
“A lot of times I had to let people know everything I had, I had to work for,” he said. But getting up early in the morning to start the grill to feed his hungry patrons is what Atwater lives for and at 40 years old, he’s just happy to still be doing what he loves.
But there is one question that Atwater finds himself answering a lot. Why not open back up on Martin Luther King Street where for years Atwater’s resided?
“Me being on 22nd is where my love and my heart is, just like Ninth Street is love and heart,” explained Atwater. “But business is bigger than that.” He feels the new location will bring those who have never heard of the Atwater name, or tasted their delicious eats, into his restaurant and is doing everything he can to keep it lively and interesting for his new clientele.
By showcasing area chefs and hiring exceptional cooks, Atwater hopes to be in business for a long time and dreams of opening more locations throughout the city.
“People are responding,” he said.
Atwater said the building on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Street won’t be closed for too long. The family is renting the space to a new restaurateur and it should be opening up soon.
“I support all black businesses, and I can’t wait until 9th Street Café opens,” Atwater said about the family friend who’s opening up where he spent his childhood cooking.
As if opening up a new restaurant wasn’t enough, Atwater is having a car show on the Fourth of July at the Skyway Mall. Sponsored by Gallerie 909 and Cricket Wireless, there will be plenty of BBQ, bounce houses for the kids, and good family fun starting at 1 p.m.
Atwater’s Best BBQ and Soul Food also caters and delivers to the surrounding community.
For a full list of what they have to offer, check them out on Facebook or contact them via phone at (727) 906-3200 and (727) 520-3030.