Whether or not you’re familiar with the name Tony Fortner, you very likely know of his work. As executive chef of many of Cleveland’s most popular Southern restaurants, Fortner developed the dishes that have become soul food staples around town. Formerly with the Angie’s Soul Republic restaurant group, Fortner helped open Zanzibar Soul Fusion at Shaker Square, Jezebel's Bayou on Larchmere, and Stonetown downtown, among others.
Last week, he opened his own shop, Southern Café
(11817 Detroit Ave., 216-801-4535), a casual 35-seat restaurant in Lakewood that most recently was home to Almellass Café, a Saudi Arabian restaurant.
“This is my twist on all of the restaurants that I wrote the meus for as executive chef – Zanzibar, Stonetown, Chester’s,” says Fortner. “I took all the best items off those menus and combined them all into one menu that is a Southern concept that is the best in the city.”
West-side diners will be introduced to delicious starters like shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes and the ever-popular soul rolls, crispy egg rolls filled with chicken, cheese and chopped collard greens. Sandwiches like fried perch and catfish Po’ Boys join soul satisfying entrees like buttermilk fried chicken with red velvet waffles and pork chops smothered in gravy and onions. All your favorite sides are here, including baked mac and cheese, candied yams, collard greens, and fried okra. For dessert, there’s peach cobbler and bread pudding drizzled with bourbon sauce.
Fortner’s culinary resume stretches all the way back to 1979, when he helped open the vegetarian restaurant Earth by April in Cleveland Heights. Since then he’s helmed the stoves at Canterbury Golf Club, Johnny’s Downtown and Chester’s on Noble. But at none of those places did he experience the level of excitement that he has witnessed over the past week, he reports.
“We only opened up last week but the buzz about it has been crazy,” he says. “The beautiful thing about this location is that none of the sit-down Southern Soul Food concepts are on the West Side; everything is concentrated on the East Side. We’re bringing the flavor that we developed and perfected on the East Side to the West Side.”