The kitchen door swings to and fro as endless plates of fried chicken breeze through the restaurant, releasing a sizzle and wafts of buttery spice. A tinkling of jazz mingles with the low hum of chatter.
In one leather-upholstered booth, a man whose stature defies his 5-foot-6-inch frame huddles with a group–chewing on chicken wings and making plans that might just change the world.
The year is 1963, the place: Paschal’s Restaurant & Coffee Shop in Atlanta. The man? Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.
This unassuming American diner was the unofficial headquarters of the civil rights movement in Atlanta. At Paschal’s, Dr. King, John Lewis, and co. strategized over baskets of chicken and catfish, piling plates high with wilted collard greens, mac ‘n’ cheese, and candied yams.
The chicken itself, still served at its current Castleberry Hill location, is equally legendary. A golden, peppery coating gives way with a crack, revealing meat soft as butter. The secret recipe, involving around a dozen different spices, hasn’t changed since Robert and James Paschal first opened in 1947.
The brothers’ business began with a 30-seat diner selling sandwiches and coffee. With no stove, Robert brined and fried his chicken at home, delivering batches via taxi. In 1959, they moved to bigger, better-equipped premises across the road.
Customers flocked through the doors. Paschal’s location, on a thoroughfare in a black community, combined with the brothers’ refusal to observe segregation, added to its popularity.
But it was the patronage of one Dr. King that propelled the restaurant to iconic status.
Marshall Slack has waited tables at Paschal’s since it opened. He can often be found regaling customers with stories of how, in the early 1960s, Dr. King approached James Paschal, introduced himself, and inquired about holding meetings there.
“He [Dr. King] didn’t have any money to really pay for a room or pay for anything, but he wanted to start a coalition,” said Slack.
In his 2006 memoir, James Paschal recalled how the civil rights leader asked to bring fellow activists to the restaurant to “eat, meet, rest, plan and strategize.”
“How could we refuse?” he wrote. “We had the resources and the place. We believed we had been called to be part of the Movement.”
The memoir names the 1963 March on Washington among events that were planned, at least partly, at Paschal’s.
“I think it’s less that [the Paschal brothers] chose to be in the civil rights movement, and more that it chose them,” Atlanta chef Todd Richards told me.
An active member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which aims to preserve and study the history and culture of culinary traditions in America’s South, Richards published a cookbook, “Soul”, focusing on the recipes he grew up with.
Soul: A Chef's Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes, $35 on Amazon
“Historically, [Paschal’s is] one of the most iconic places in the city,” he added. “Outside of church, restaurants were probably the largest meeting spaces available. They provided food and shelter, a safe haven.”
“Paschal’s was known throughout the South. It started with how delicious the food was, and became a meeting place later. You still can’t get a bad piece of fried chicken there.”
The brothers’ role went beyond serving great food in the restaurant. They delivered baskets of chicken and sandwiches to those marching and protesting against segregation, posting bail for activists who were arrested. They regularly stayed open late, providing shelter and sustenance for those awaiting the release of loved ones.
Robert Paschal died in 1997, soon after the brothers had a street named after them. Aptly, Paschal Boulevard intersects with Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. James opened the current location in 2002. Since his death in 2008, the place has been operated by family members.
An illustration of Dr. King dominates the dining room. Upstairs is a banqueting suite dedicated to the late Maynard Jackson. The city’s first black mayor was so frequent a patron that Paschal’s was dubbed “Little City Hall.” The room is a gallery of civil rights heroes: John Lewis, Coretta Scott King, Hosea Williams.
Paschal’s was part of another movement: one that popularized soul food. Likening fried chicken to duck confit in terms of the skill and preparation involved, chef Richards fears that higher taxes and rents, and expensive ingredients could threaten institutions like Paschal’s—unless customers pay more.
“People have a hard time separating race from the cost of food. The assumption is that if an African-American person is cooking it, it should be cheap. But it cannot be served cheap anymore,” he said. “These places won’t be able to stay open. They have to start charging what it’s worth. It’s up to us to celebrate these restaurants before they close, and to celebrate their history.”
Header image courtesy of Ella Buchan