Hot link, wings and grits for breakfast at Watts Coffee House
Hot link, wings and grits for breakfast at Watts Coffee House
Garrett Snyder

At Watts Coffee House, Soul Food With a Side of History

I’m going to be straight with you. If you’re in any sort of hurry, even remotely, breakfast at Watts Coffee House isn’t the best idea. After all, there are numerous places in South L.A. where a chicken-and-waffle craving can be sated — Roscoe’s, the Serving Spoon, Matthew's Homestyle, etc. — and none require committing the better part of your morning.

But there is something different about Watts Coffee House. Housed in what was once a community rec room, it’s equal parts old-school diner and black culture time capsule, a place where the term “soul food” is stretched to its widest connotation. The walls are plastered with posters and playbills commemorating African-American icons — some local, some international — everyone from Otis Redding to Redd Foxx to Malcolm X, along with hundreds of stickers and signs from local businesses and clubs stuck onto every empty surface. Motown tunes float through the air, while retro sitcoms play on a TV in the corner. A line of antique Easy-Bake ovens sits on a shelf overhead.

For the uninitiated, finding the coffee house from the street can be a challenge. The building it's housed inside is surrounded by a tall iron fence, with the dining room tucked next door to a bustling charter school. If the building looks past its prime, that’s because it perhaps is. The former community center where the restaurant now sits was built in 1966, one year after protests over a police stop turned violent and erupted into the Watts Riots, a six-day primal scream of violence and destruction that shook a vibrant neighborhood to its core. The rush of community pride and resilience that followed the riots prompted a group of local churchgoers to transform a partially burned, abandoned furniture store into the Watts Happening Coffee House, a civic hub that, among other things, provided a gathering place for musicians, poets, artists, civil right activists, Hollywood celebrities and Black Panther Party members during the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s.

Watts Coffee HouseEXPAND
Watts Coffee House
Garrett Snyder

In the following decades, though, Watts Happening slowly fell into disrepair, and the robust coffee-house vibe it was known for vanished. It wasn’t until the late '90s that Harold Hambrick, then president of the L.A. Black Business Expo, helped revitalize the center by offering a rent-free restaurant space to local caterer Desiree Edwards, provided she open a business geared toward serving the community. In 1997, Edwards debuted the newly christened Watts Coffee House, an operation she still runs today.

Twenty years later, Watts Coffee House has retained its iconic if slightly under-the-radar status among locals, even winning one of Steve Harvey’s popular “Hoodie Awards” in 2003. When outsider chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson arrived in the neighborhood last year to open Locol, their community-minded, healthful fast food restaurant, they were quick to acknowledge the significance that the nearby coffee house played in the community, as an act of both deference and provocation. (“It’s a great place with great people, but it’s the only sit-down restaurant in Watts,” Choi told Los Angeles Magazine.)

If you’re dining at Watts Coffee House for the first time, the lone server will undoubtedly point you toward breakfast (the restaurant is open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays, except Monday, with shortened hours on the weekend). This is not a bad thing. The house specialty — other than potent, diner-style black coffee — is more or less the breakfast plate heaped with creamy, butter-soaked grits, a fluffy homemade biscuit (provided they don’t run out), two eggs and a couple of crunchy, well-seasoned fried chicken wings. If you’re more intrigued by hard-seared hash browns, crumbly salmon croquettes, spicy hot links and pan-fried pork chops, they've got those, too (try the “On the 1 Gangsta Breakfast,” an everything-on-the-menu sampler platter). You should probably make room for at least one waffle, as their unique torpedo-shaped version is ideally suited for dipping in warm syrup. As you can imagine, a soul food breakfast lends itself to overindulgence.

And yes, as previously mentioned, the pace of business here fluctuates between molasses-like and downright glacial. But this is a positive attribute, I think, if only to give you time to absorb the memorabilia lining the walls, to strike up a conversation with the next table, or to savor the home-cooked quality of the food when it finally arrives. Few restaurants manage to capture the spirit of an entire neighborhood — for better or worse, willingly or otherwise — in the way that Watts Coffee House does. That alone is worth the wait.

Watts Coffee House, 1827 E. 103rd St., Watts. (323) 249-4343.

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