First Taste: Minnie Bell's Soul Movement and its rosemary fried chicken come home to the Fillmore.
Minnie Bell's owner Fernay McPherson is finally serving her famous fried chicken in her home neighborhood of SF's Filllmore. (Citizen Film)

First Taste: Minnie Bell's Soul Movement and its rosemary fried chicken come home to the Fillmore.


Last month, Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement came home to the Fillmore.

It had been more than a decade coming. Ever since the restaurant’s chef and owner Fernay McPherson first launched her business through the incubator program at La Cocina, she’s wanted to open a storefront in the neighborhood that’s been home to her family for three generations.

“We searched high and low in the Fillmore for so long,” says McPherson. “It was either too expensive, or I didn’t have access to enough capital, or the landlords didn’t believe in my vision.”

She opened up a food truck, instead; followed by catering and hosting pop-ups in the city. Eventually, McPherson took Minnie Bell’s across the Bay to the Emeryville Public Market. By then, her rosemary fried chicken had become a cult favorite and introducing it to the East Bay gave the chef the chance to expand her reach.

But even with the business going strong, McPherson never gave up on the idea of returning home. So, when the city of San Francisco reached out to the chef with an opportunity to fill a vacancy on Fillmore Street through its Dream Keeper Initiative—a program working to return Black-owned businesses to the Fillmore—she jumped at the chance. It’s there that I meet McPherson, her soft brown eyes asparkle as she greets guests and hustles platters of crispy drumsticks from kitchen to table.

On one wall of the restaurant sprawls a vintage black-and-white photograph of Fillmore Street when it was still considered the Harlem of the West. On another, two fresh-faced young women, McPherson’s grandmother Lillie Bell and great aunt Minnie back in the day, watch over the restaurant like guardian angels.

Fernay McPherson in front of the mural of her inspiration, grandmother Lillie Bell and great aunt Minnie.(Courtesy of Citizen Film)

“They were my inspiration,” says McPherson. “Growing up, they would cook these amazing meals and make them look so pretty. I was so amazed with the presentation of food and, of course, it tasted amazing too. When I took the leap to go into the food industry professionally, it was only fitting to bring them along with me.”

Minnie came to the Fillmore as a child in late ‘30s or early ‘40s with her father, a train porter who’d fallen in love with the city on a prior visit. Lillie Bell arrived from Texas in 1962 when her husband, who worked at the post office, transferred to a local branch. Both were part of The Great Migration, the flow of African-Americans out of the South and across the country in search of better opportunities. In San Francisco, they became part of the historic Black community growing up around the Fillmore.

By the time McPherson was coming up, the neighborhood had changed. “Redevelopment happened before I was born, so a lot of the Black-owned businesses and homeowners were already pushed out of the city. While there was still some community left in the Fillmore, a lot of people eventually had to start moving out,” she says.

The neighborhood had its challenges in those days. “I grew up in the heart of the crack epidemic,” says McPherson. “There was a lot of violence, a lot of young men losing their lives when crack cocaine came in and flooded our neighborhood.” But, says the chef, she never felt unsafe. “If I was walking home from school or a party, if someone saw me they would walk me home. I was around people who loved me and wanted to look out for me.”

Today, although crack no longer infests the Fillmore, the neighborhood faces different challenges. “I don’t feel the same community and safety that I felt then,” McPherson continues.

Despite its changes, though, the river of the Fillmore’s past still runs deep. “I want Minnie Bell’s to be a place where people can learn about the history of the Fillmore,” says McPherson. “A bunch of people from the community were all there last week…and they all got to talking, and it just happened authentically. That’s exactly what I wanted, that was my hope for that space, being able to have a very diverse group of people who come in and have an experience.”

Minnie Bell's new Fillmore restaurant. A vintage photo of the neighborhood covers one wall.(Citizen Film)

Fried chicken—and the restaurant’s selection of bubbles, wine, and beer—make a fine starting point for conversation. McPherson has tweaked the comforting and familiar soul food flavors of the South just enough to make them standout. To her fried chicken, she’s famously included fresh rosemary, an herb that “adds a layer of flavor and freshness but doesn’t take away from it so it feels like it isn’t fried chicken.”

Sides like pie-filling perfect candied yams, creamy mac and cheese made with rich bechamel and three types of cheese, and moist brown butter cornbread hold their own against the main course. The chef’s explosively flavorful braised greens are, surprisingly, completely vegan.

“The greens are crazy simple,” McPherson laughs. “All it is is a few spices and a very rich veggie stock. We slow braise them for a couple of hours and let all of those flavors just start to marry.” Additional menu items like cornmeal-crusted catfish and vegan mac and cheese made with house-brined mushrooms are coming soon.

“Coming out of culinary school, I always felt like soul food, I don’t think people are gonna buy soul food,” says McPherson. “But I think going to La Cocina, when I saw other women doing the food that resonates with them and their families, it helped me understand that I could be me.”

Although it remains to be seen whether Minnie Bell’s homecoming is the start of a resurgence of Black-owned businesses in the Fillmore, it’s something McPherson would love to see. And eventually, when the future history of the Fillmore is written, there will be a place for Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement on its pages.

// Minnie Bell's Soul Movement SF is open Tuesday through Saturday; 1375 Fillmore St. (Fillmore),

Some of the sides at Minnie Bell's: brown butter cornbread, braised greens, pickled veggies, and mac n cheese.(Courtesy of Citizen Film)

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