Viral food critic Keith Lee caused quite a debate about the current state of restaurant culture.
Although Lee has not visited any Tarrant County establishments, his observations on closed doors and dismissive customer service caused many to reflect on historic restaurants that managed to satisfy customers for years, becoming culinary mainstays.
Such is the case with Drake’s Cafeteria. At the historic corner of Rosedale Street and Evans Avenue in Fort Worth, a legendary Black-owned restaurant served not only delectable soul food but also a hearty helping of tenacity that proved that passion for one’s craft could unite a neighborhood over a plate from Drake’s.
I recently caught up with the proprietor’s granddaughter, Fort Worth native Vanzanell Edwards, to hear about her family’s legacy. Although Drake’s closed its doors in 2004 — and no pomp and circumstance at the time offered the much deserved respect due this beloved restaurant — treasured memories of its heyday and the indomitable spirit of its creator lingers on.
Irreasa Drake, a culinary pioneer
Irreasa Drake, a Texas native and culinary visionary, opened her first cafe at 911 Jones St. She had honed her skills while cooking professionally at other places, including Brown’s Cafe. To open her own cafe, she took out a small loan to go grocery shopping, so that she could afford to have what she needed to begin cooking immediately. Drake’s Lunch Room was her first business, and a few moves — and two decades later — she opened Drake’s Cafeteria in 1975, in the vacant and equally historic Zanzibar Night Club.
Drake’s journey into the restaurant business was inspired by her family’s deep-seated love for traditional soul food cooking, the staples that are now synonymous with essential Southern food. She transformed her family’s cherished recipes, and even some she created herself, into the culinary treasures that attracted diners from far and wide. Even celebrities found solace in her comfort foods.
She was known not only for her mouthwatering dishes, but also for her unwavering love of family and commitment to her neighborhood.
Chef Drake passed away on Aug. 1, 1990, leaving behind a culinary empire she built with love and dedication. Her granddaughter, Vanzanell Edwards, stepped up to carry on the family tradition of cooking and maintain the beloved institution. Under Chef Vanzanell’s stewardship, Drake’s Cafeteria continued to thrive, offering the same delicious comfort food that made it a local favorite.
Due to a series of events, Edwards closed for good in 2004. But many residents continue to exchange loving memories of what the restaurant meant to its neighbors.
“What made my grandmother special was that she cared about her food, but she also cared about people. She was old school, and everyone loved her,” Edwards said.
Chef Drake welcomed any and everyone into her busy restaurant. In its early years, Edwards recalled, the restaurant was open 24 hours. Her grandmother never took a day off.
“My grandmother was the owner, there was no question. But it was successful because my whole family took pride in helping. We pitched in all the time. Even me and my twin brother would work with our cousins after school. We were expected to finish our homework, and then we had little age-appropriate chores my grandmother assigned to us. The restaurant business was all we knew,” Edwards said.
Edwards was determined to preserve her grandmother’s legacy and honor her memory, ensuring that the restaurant remained a hub of Southern hospitality, culture, and community spirit. Customers continued to flock to Drake’s Cafeteria for their fix of the same foods Chef Drake had popularized: perfectly seasoned collard greens, mouth-watering fried chicken, pork chops, smothered rabbit and, of course, her legendary baked corn.
But what set Drake’s Cafeteria apart was its unwavering dedication to service. Chef Drake saw her restaurant as a place where locals could gather, enjoy a delicious meal and celebrate the rich Black heritage of Texas’ culinary traditions.
Drake’s Cafeteria also often welcomed celebrities. As I sat in Edwards’ home, she shared remarkable stories of meeting such iconic stars as Tina Turner, who sashayed into the kitchen one day and surprised them all; the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who visited twice during his years of campaigning; and musical genius Prince, who dined inside with his entourage. Even the iconic Michael Jackson had his bodyguards pick up a plate at Drake’s for him and his crew.
Regardless of who you were or how much money you had, you were welcome.
Locals were welcomed, too, whose colorful personalities contributed to the restaurant’s lively atmosphere.
“She never looked down on anyone and I think people respected that,” Edwards said.
Legacy and inspiration
Drake’s Cafeteria was more than just a restaurant — it was a testament to the power of family, tradition and community.
The story of Chef Irreasa Drake is a reminder of the incredible resilience and dedication of Black entrepreneurs in the face of adversity in the restaurant industry.
The spirit of what Drake built — along with her culinary excellence — continues to inspire and uplift all who remember the cafe’s glory days. Chef Drake’s vision and her granddaughter’s dedication will continue to inspire generations to come.
Although no descendants have carried on the torch by way of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant, several heirs have inherited the “cooking gene.”
When asked if there would ever be an opportunity to reopen an establishment in some capacity, Edwards teased, “Never say never.”
If we’re lucky, a new generation will pick up where Drake’s Cafeteria left off. Although the shoes are large, I have faith that a few from the chef’s line are more than capable of reminding us of this historic Fort Worth food destination and helping to create new memories.
Deah Mitchell writes about more than food. You can email her at email@example.com.