Dannie and Dorothy Carter run Carter's Restaurant with help from daughters Makeda (second from left) and Aisha. Photo by Isaac Harrell
The sweet aroma of chocolate chip cookies just out of the oven and the savory scent of mashed potatoes and gravy wafting through the door are reminiscent of good home cooking. Carter's Restaurant, which opened in March at 8906 W. Broad St. in Gold's Gym Plaza, has that familiar feel.
It's an environment fostered by Dannie and Dorothy Carter, who run the business along with their children, Makeda, Dannie Jr., Aisha and Maurice. Following the example of their own parents, Dannie and Dorothy began to cook at a young age and later passed on their passion as they raised their children in western Henrico County. "It's almost like a family tradition," says Makeda Carter, 36, the eldest sibling and a chef at the restaurant. "Every Sunday in my parents' house, we would have a truckload of people come by [to eat]."
Dorothy grew up in a family of 11 in Lawrenceville, about 75 miles south of Richmond. "Dinner would consist of chicken, potatoes, string beans or cabbage," she says. "We also ate a lot of healthy, raw foods, and we never drank soda."
Although Carter's specializes in Southern-style soul food (grits, pigs feet and chitterlings are on the menu), Makeda says that doesn't mean it's all bad for you. "We don't cook with pork in our vegetables or with lard," she says. "We try to be health conscious." The family often buys vegetables from her uncle in Brunswick County, she adds.
"People don't believe us, but my mom and dad never let us eat fast food [as children]," Makeda says. "We thought it was Christmas if we went to McDonald's."
Ten years ago, the family operated Carter's Country Kitchen, a carry-out place on 29th Street in Church Hill. And before that, when Maurice was attending a Catholic high school in Maryland, the family moved to the Washington suburbs and opened Carter's Restaurant and Lounge in Oxon Hill, Md., but after he graduated, they returned to their hometown. While all of the siblings help with the restaurant, Makeda, a former social worker, and Dannie Jr. are the ones who are there most of the time. Aisha (known at Carter's as "Peaches") also attends Howard University, where she's studying law and criminal justice. Maurice plays professional basketball internationally (currently he's playing in Venezuela).
But not every sibling grew up with a natural ability to cook. "I have a funny story to tell you," Makeda says. "My baby brother [Maurice] went to university and was able to get an apartment off campus. He called my mom and dad to ask how to fry chicken. When he called back, the fire department was on the phone because he burnt the apartment down. Now we call him Fire Marshall Bill," she says, laughing. So the cooking is left to their parents, "Dot and Dan," and Makeda, also known as "Meatball." Aisha helps with waitressing, greeting and managing, while Maurice and Dannie Jr. do a variety of tasks in the back.
Growing up in western Henrico, Makeda says, she never saw a soul food restaurant in her neighborhood. Carter's remedies that omission with dishes such as "Momma Lizzle's Liver-n-Onions," a meatloaf dinner inspired by Dannie's mother, Elizabeth. The potpie at Carter's is named after Dorothy's mother, Sarah. Sides include macaroni-and-cheese, yams, stuffing and greens of the day. For breakfast and Sunday brunch, the menu features home fries and fried apples, pancakes and homemade biscuits.
"We are basically [serving] an American cuisine, and we specialize in home cooking, and soul food," Dorothy says. "The food that our parents cooked in our kitchen is what we cook in our kitchen."At Carter's, Dorothy and Makeda say they want their guests to feel like they're walking into a second home.
"We'll talk a hole in your neck, but you won't leave feeling like a dollar," says Makeda. "You'll leave here like family."