Alberta Wright, the owner of Jezebel, which brought soul food with panache to Manhattan’s theater district and helped make sophisticated variations of Southern dishes a culinary trend, died on Friday in the Bronx. She was 84.
The cause was heart failure, her son Ronald said.
Jezebel, which opened in 1983 on Ninth Avenue and 45th Street, was a precursor of today’s upscale soul-food restaurants, like Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster in Harlem.
Mr. Samuelsson called Ms. Wright a “trailblazer” and an “inspiration” in a telephone interview on Friday.
“When you ate with Alberta, you were her friend,” he said, adding: “You come into her living room and she’ll take care of you. She’ll remember what you had, where you like to sit. It’s the core of what a restaurateur should be.”
Jezebel’s menu drew on Ms. Wright’s experience growing up in South Carolina, north of Charleston; the décor harked back to her years selling vintage clothing from her successful boutique, also named Jezebel, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
“Palms and assorted foliage sway under the breeze of big room fans; lacy, multicolored shawls hang from ceiling pipes; eccentric old lamps flicker in every corner; antique furniture mixes with white wicker chairs and porch swings suspended from the ceiling,” Bryan Miller wrote in a review in The New York Times in 1987. “Add to this potpourri Oriental rugs, vintage posters, lace-covered tables and crystal chandeliers and you have one of the most intriguing settings in New York.”
Jezebel offered traditional dishes like garlic shrimp, she-crab soup and three varieties of chicken — fried, honey-fried and with waffles. A 1992 review in The Times, also by Mr. Miller, described Jezebel’s offerings as “the best soul food south of 110th Street (maybe above, too).”
Ms. Wright tried opening a branch of her restaurant in Paris and worked with investors like Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Charles Oakley, Julius Erving and her son Michael Wright, the stage and film actor, to open another on the Upper West Side, but both efforts fizzled. Ms. Wright closed Jezebel in 2007. Piece of Chicken, a dollar-an-item takeout business that she ran from Jezebel’s kitchen window, stayed open for a while longer.
Alberta Wright was born on June 13, 1931, in Pineville, S.C. Her parents, Annie and Edmond Wright, were sharecroppers. She learned to cook by watching her mother.
“My mother worked as a domestic for wealthy white folks,” Ms. Wright said. “I’d go through the back to the kitchen — we couldn’t go through the front — to where my mother was working, and she’d slip me a muffin.”
Ms. Wright gave birth to twins, Ronald and Donald, as a teenager and moved to New York. The twins stayed behind with different families, and after Ms. Wright had saved up enough money working as a waitress, she brought them to New York.
She worked at an aircraft plant, a camera company and a dress shop and became deeply involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. She told The Times that she once served chili to Malcolm X and was a regular at West African diplomatic parties, where she learned of new foods and spices that she later used in her kitchen.
In addition to her sons Ronald, Donald and Michael, Ms. Wright is survived by a sister, Gladys Jenkins; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
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