Customers jam the entrance to Bistro Soul on East Ohio Street on Friday, June 18. (Photo Corey Carrington)

“The greens are slamming and the cornbread is fire,” observed Central Northsider Roberta Armstrong, who sat with her family outside Bistro Soul’s open house on Friday, June 18.

Owner Nikki Heckman has planned the opening of her new soul food restaurant at 415 East Ohio Street for months and even advertised the event on billboards overlooking I-279.

And, boy, did the crowds come.

More than a 100 guests crammed into the front of the casual dining restaurant, which features a garage door entry and a takeout counter, and tried to get their hands on samples of what the new eatery will offer when it officially opens on June 28.

The food is less expensive than Bistro-to-Go and is sold in a variety of sizes to fit all wallets and stomachs.

Bistro Soul’s style mimics Bistro-to-Go next door, but its warm color palette — blue, yellow, green and red — announce a more relaxed atmosphere than its older sister. Bistro Soul can also seat about twice as many patrons as Bistro-to-Go.

Beside the collard greens and cornbread,  obvious crowd favorites, Bistro Soul cooks handed out samples of red beans and rice, a black-eyed pea salad and country ribs.

The opening caught the eye of frequent Bistro-to-Go customer Val Say, of Gibsonia, a nurse at Allegheny General Hospital.

Speaking of Bistro Soul’s mature counterpart next door, Say said, “We’ve never had any bad food down here. I always recommend it to people.”

Jazz duo Baq II Baq (pronounced “back-to-back”), consisting of Bill Holt on saxophone and Brian Bullard on percussion, entertained the crowd in the large back dining area, which Heckman plans to have double as a conference and music venue.

After Reverend Lawrence Thompson, of Brown Chapel  A.M.E. Church, said a prayer, Grant Mitten, a member of the Seneca Native-American tribe, performed a traditional Seneca blessing.

After burning sage in a bowl, Mitten walked the room and wafted the smoke at each table. The pungent smell lent the occasion a pleasant atmosphere, and afterward several staff members of Bistro-to-Go spoke about the significance of opening Bistro’s sister restaurant.

Left: Grant Mitten offers a Seneca blessing for Bistro Soul. In the background, Nikki Heckman, left, Chef Alfredo, center, and Ray Speicher look on.

“Since the 1970s, we saw the decline of the Northside,” said David McMunn, president of the Mexican War Streets Society and a Bistro-to-Go employee. McMunn called Bistro Soul’s opening an event equal to other area redevelopments like the new Carnegie Library on Federal Street and the new street lights and brick sidewalks on Western Avenue. Opening Bistro Soul would bring the same attention to East Ohio Street, he said.

“It’s not just the great food. It’s the people who work here,” Heckman said, who thanked her staff and customers for helping her to keep Bistro-to-Go going strong for three years.  

Heckman said on the back wall of the rear dining area, Bistro Soul will feature a local nonprofit each month. This month, Urban Impact, a youth sports and mentoring program, was advertised on the wall, and pamphlets on each table told patrons how they could get involved.

After another prayer, Heckman made it clear to her guests that though she and many of her staff were Christian, she wanted Bistro Soul to be open to people of all walks of life.

“We’re a Christian organization, but the folks who own this building are Mormons, the folks across the street are Muslim and the folks up the street are Jewish. Everyone is accepted here,” Heckman said.

Many longtime patrons of Bistro-to-Go were excited to see the reappearance of Chef Alfredo, who was badly injured in a car accident last year. Alfredo, displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and responsible for introducing many of Bistro-to-Go’s Cajun recipes, even stood up out of his wheelchair at one moment to thank the crowd for keeping him in their prayers during his long hospital stay.

Chef Alfredo’s reappearance made the event extra special for many of his former co-workers. In their remarks to attendees, many said his well-being was a sign of better things to come at Bistro Soul.

“Certainly, [God] has done a good thing on East Ohio Street,” said Reverend Thompson.