Comfort food reigns supreme on the menu of Park Vue, a soul food restaurant at the edge of the city’s Schiller Park. Daughter-mother owners Harrita West and Schenita Williams say that they yearned to try their hands at being restaurateurs while creating a welcoming place for their community.
The Schiller Park neighborhood, bordered by Genesee Street and Walden Avenue, is largely African-American: this homey restaurant on South Crossman Street is one of a handful of soul food emporiums sprinkled throughout East Buffalo. Fried chicken, catfish, and traditional sides like collard greens, cornbread, and yams are the stars of this show. And, of course, creamy mac & cheese, a soul food menu staple. A more newfangled menu item is chicken fried cauliflower steaks (hot sauce on the side).
Owners Harrita West and Schenita Williams
The most popular menu items are the fried haddock, and fried ribs according to Harrita. Due to popular demand, the restaurant is now open four days a week – Thursdays through Sundays – for dinner only. Park Vue was featured on the list of 2021 participants in The Buffalo Urban League’s Black Restaurant Week, an event that was founded in 2018, highlighting black-owned establishments.
Named for a famed German poet of the same name, the Schiller Park neighborhood was once heavily populated with German families, and restaurants serving familiar, traditional fare. Park Vue, which opened with a large party and hundreds of eager diners in 2019, is located in a commercial-residential building that once housed Scharf’s Restaurant, and before that Schiller Park Tavern, also family-owned businesses.
Harrita and Schenita, who both reside in the Schiller Park neighborhood, have a shared passion for cooking, and community service. Harrita works full-time as a banker, and Schenita has been a teacher for over four decades. They emphasize that their venture has brought them closer, and that their side hustle energizes them.
In 2020, they were the benefactors of the expertise and analysis of the reality television show “Restaurant: Impossible,” hosted by chef/author Robert Irvine, who became a friend and champion. The 24-hour, $10,000 beauty makeover of their restaurant’s dining room, kitchen, and front barroom aired on The Food Network in April of 2021. The final reveal was a surprise; they’d only stated that green was a favorite color, the rest was crafted by a team from Los Angeles.
What was once a dining room with the look and feel of a typical banquet hall is now modern, rejuvenated, and airy: four prominent sculptural grids in the center of the room are topped with illuminated letters spelling out S-O-U-L. One of the dining room walls features three large, green, and hand-painted cabbage heads (a soul food staple) resembling huge, luscious flowers.
“In the beginning, we were like oil and water,” Schenita says, “but now we have balanced everything out, everything in the kitchen runs smoother. We have our boundaries and our own stations, and we will flip-flop stations sometimes.”
“We were figuring it all out,” adds Harrita, “we had all this equipment and had to figure out how it all worked. It took a while.”
Harrita has a similar address to the former Scharf’s Restaurant, a situation that led to occasional mix-ups with mail deliveries, causing her to drop off mail to the former owners and helping to build a relationship with them. When she learned they were changing their location to West Seneca (Scharf’s has since permanently closed), she researched the property and saw that it was on a city auction list.
Harrita says that she called her mother and stepfather, asking them to “keep an open mind” when they looked at it with her. “I want my restaurant,” she told them, to which they said, “let’s do it!” Harrita says she and her mother “kept having dreams about the building” during the lengthy, complicated path to ownership, as the building was part of an estate.
“We’re dreamers,” Harrita says.
“On the flipside of this dreaming,” Schenita says, “I come from a family of ten and I’ve always done the big cooking – all of the holidays, and every year I give back to the community with a Thanksgiving feast for my students and their families. My husband works for a homeless shelter and I cook for them as well. When I got tired of having all the big functions, Harrita took over. When she got married I cooked for her entire wedding, for 300 people.”
As part of their ongoing dreams, the duo would love to get a summer jazz series happening in Schiller Park, adjacent to their restaurant. Ideally, they add, a future renovation to their building might include windows overlooking the verdant park just feet away.
“The way I cook is the way she cooks,” says Schenita. “We cook well together and prepare the dishes that African-Americans are accustomed to eating.” They’ve welcomed several tourists from Niagara Falls who, they say, search online for soul food – and head right to Park Vue. “Soul food is something that we cook well,” says Harrita.