Busy B.

B. Smith conquers the catwalk, the kitchen, business and Broadway

by Doug Rule
Published on September 22, 2011, 4:42am | Comments

When it comes to New York joining the marriage-equality states, B. Smith borrows a famous line from Martin Luther King Jr. ''It's like, 'Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, we're free at last!'''

Obviously, the straight restaurateur – and actress and former fashion model – is happy about the news that came out of her home state over the summer.

''I have chills, I'm so, so happy,'' she says. ''I hope that [marriage equality] moves forward in a way that it continues to grow and people continue to understand that it's not about them.''

B. Smith photographed at her Union Station restaurant, July 14, 2011

B. Smith photographed at her Union Station restaurant, July 14, 2011


(Photo by Todd Franson)

Rather, it's about not denying people the ability to live their lives fully, to raise their kids, to love their spouses, all without hurting anyone else, says Smith, who says she never struggled with views on homosexuality. There was no handwringing or emotional revelation needed.

''I can't remember not being accepting,'' the 61-year-old says plainly.

She can, however, remember not being accepted herself while growing up in ''Smalltown, USA'' of western Pennsylvania.

''All of us actually have something that people have rejected about what we do or who we are,'' she says. In Smith's case, early rejection came from the Future Homemakers of America when she was in elementary school. Her observation is that while Americans generally consider African-Americans' connection to the unfortunate part of America's agricultural history, from slavery to sharecropping, there is a disconnect when it comes to grasping the contemporary connections with produce and farming. But with her restaurants today featuring earthy-yet-sophisticated staples such as a black-eyed pea soup with garden vegetables and fried green tomatoes, the woman with her own lifestyle brand has more than made up for that early rejection.

''Future Homemaker of America – that's what I am today!'' Smith says, enjoying the last laugh. Rather than accept that early setback, Smith started her own home economics club and made herself its president.

It's that spirit of perseverance and pluck that has gotten Smith where she is today. ''You just have to keep knocking on doors,'' she says. ''It doesn't happen overnight.''

Smith may be best known for three eponymous Southern-themed gourmet restaurants, including a grand location at D.C.'s Union Station, but they may not know about the determination it took to get them.

Already armed with talent in the kitchen, Smith realized she needed business acumen in order to transition from her first career in modeling. So just as a new restaurant was about to open in New York, Smith introduced herself to its management. ''What can I do?'' she asked. '''Well, you can take over the coat check.' And I was like, 'Okay, I'll do that.' Because I at least was in the restaurant.'' After working her way up the chain of command, Smith eventually partnered with that restaurant company to open B. Smith's New York City in 1986. By the time she was ready to open B. Smith's Union Station in 1994, she decided to team up with her husband, who remains her partner in life and in business today. (It's definitely a family business, with Smith's daughter managing special events at the D.C. location.)

''I think of restaurants as centers in the community,'' Smith continues. To that end, she's working to engage the community through healthier eating. ''We're trying to work more with children to get them to understand that food can be tasty and healthy at the same time.''

As for the lifestyle label, Smith has often been called the ''black Martha Stewart.'' Having produced her own ''edutainment'' TV show and magazine, as well as a few cookbooks, it's not a surprising comparison. Like Stewart, Smith has become something of a style maven, with a line of products offered at retail stores, including Bed Bath & Beyond.

Smith grants that Stewart has inspired her and many others, but that if you're going to go big you've got to forge ahead on your own terms. Or, as Smith says, ''Find your own style.'' And Smith's style, contrasted with Martha Stewart's, is ''much more colorful, maybe just a little bit more relaxed. I go out of the box more than she. Basically, what I do is a little bit easier to attain.''

But while Smith's style may be easier to attain, reaching her level of dynamism may not. Beyond the restaurants, the lifestyle branding and the former modeling career, earlier this year Smith starred on Broadway in a rotating cast of Nora and Delia Ephron's Love, Loss & What I Wore.

''It was like a feel-good moment in my life,'' she says. ''It was an awesome experience. I hope I get the opportunity to do something like that again.''

She's also eager to get a new television show. Today's television, of course, is a different ballgame than it was in the 1990s when B. Smith with Style aired on NBC stations.

''They want you to be slapping people,'' she says, laughing.

''I'm just not beating up my husband on television! Or acting crazy-crazy.''

B. Smith's Union Station, 50 Massachusetts Ave. NE, serves lunch, dinner and a Sunday buffet brunch. For reservations, call 202-289-6188 or visit bsmith.com.