CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Antonio Lewis' New Orleans roots show clearly on Mondays and Tuesdays when he "barks" in front of I Rise Soul Food Cafe on Charleston's East End. It's a habit he picked up from crowded Bourbon Street where restaurant owners drum up business by putting an employee out on the sidewalks verbally encouraging passers-by into the eatery.
"Here we go. Ya'll stop that car and come on in and give us a try," Lewis calls to people in cars stopped at the intersection of East Washington and Elizabeth streets. His cheerful face and persuasive voice beckon walkers to try the Cajun and Creole cuisine he cooks.
Lewis, who also works at Embassy Suites, shares the kitchen two days a week with I Rise owners Leigh Staunton and his wife, Kawanna Honeycutt-Staunton. The couple opened the restaurant in January and serve soul food like roasted and barbecued chicken, creamy macaroni and cheese and greens. On Wednesdays, the fare is Jamaican -- jerk chicken with mango sauce and curry chicken and lamb.
The menu changes daily and features a generous serving of the daily entrée like spinach lasagna, tilapia, beef ribs or turkey, plus side dishes that might include red beans and rice, mashed sweet potatoes, pumpkin rice or cornbread stuffing. The portions are generous, but homemade blackberry cobbler, lemon mango meringue pie, bread pudding with rum sauce, bananas foster or sweet potato cheesecake still tempt diners who swear they're too full for dessert.
They named the restaurant I Rise in honor of Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise," a poem Kawanna finds inspiring.
The Stauntons and Lewis make everything in house. Lunch is $7 and dinner is $10. Breakfast items are priced at $1 each. Choose from waffles, French toast, grits, omelets, breakfast casserole, chicken or turkey sausage gravy or hot cereal.
None of the food at I Rise, not even the collard greens, contains pork, which Staunton doesn't eat. That might have been a problem for some Cajun cooks, but Lewis didn't blink an eye when Staunton stipulated that the jambalaya would not include pork sausage. He uses beef sausage instead.
So how'd a nice man from New Orleans end up barking in Charleston? His complicated journey started with Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He'd worked in the hospitality business in New Orleans for more than 20 years and was living in the ill-fated Upper Ninth Ward when urgent bulletins urged residents to evacuate.
Like much of the 65 percent of the population who relied on public transportation, Lewis had no ride out of the city, so he headed to the Super Dome just ahead of the deadly storm surge. He spent five miserable days in the stadium that was woefully unprepared to take on the role of housing the suddenly homeless residents.
After five days, they were allowed out of the stadium and confronted the sobering sight of flooded streets and pervasive destruction. Lewis boarded a bus to Fort Worth for shelter in Will Rogers Memorial Center. He returned to New Orleans five months later and found the road to his house still blocked and realized he'd lost everything. It was time to move on.