Kelsey Jackson took his wife Kim to Las Vegas earlier this year for her birthday and had a vision after seeing a celebrity impersonators show.
“I had a vision that we could make things work on Kentucky Avenue,” says Jackson, referring to the former Redding’s Restaurant that closed earlier this year. “When I worked in the casino, people asked where can I get soul food? And I couldn’t recommend anywhere, and that’s why I opened my other two places — to fill a void. And the reason we decided to also open on Kentucky Avenue is because of that vision to bring food and entertainment together. I think a year from now, people are going to be lined up at the door to get in.”
Jackson may not be exaggerating. The couple’s other two restaurants — both named Kelsey & Kim’s — are successful soul food establishments, with the Pleasantville location opening 17 years ago and another Atlantic City location on Melrose Avenue opening three years ago. Now, with a beautiful restaurant that features a bar and their first liquor license, the Jacksons hope they can be part of a Kentucky Avenue renaissance.
“I was always looking for a place like this,” Jackson says. “Even when I started 17 years ago, that was my vision to have a sit-down restaurant with live entertainment. But my wife said, ‘Let’s keep it simple.’ So we started in Pleasantville as a take-out restaurant, then opened on Melrose with seating. And now it’s our next step. When I got back from Vegas, I made the call to the building’s owner. He came down, talked to me and handed us the keys so we could inspect it and check it out. And the longer I held those keys, it was a no-brainer.”
Assisted by “chef, mentor and consultant” Willie Lewis, an Atlantic City culinary veteran who served as executive chef at the Claridge casino, Kelsey’s offers a little something for everyone: a neighborhood spot where people can have a drink and appetizer at the bar or a full dining experience complete with live music at least two nights a week.
“Chef Willie came to me and said, ‘I want to help you take what you do to another level,” Jackson says. “And I know and respect his ability and knowledge and what he was able to accomplish as a black chef and I listened. And I think we are taking what we have done to another level.”
And while Kelsey’s is certainly an attractive restaurant, it’s the food that already has people buzzing just a month after they opened their doors.
“I used to have people coming to my house to eat and all of a sudden I had 300 people there telling me I needed to open a spot,” Jackson says. “And that’s where it started. I think Carl (Redding) knew this city needed a place like this but he may not have done the right things to make it work. I am a hands-on person who is always at my restaurants, whether in the kitchen or dining room seeing what people want and what they don’t want. And making sure they leave satisfied.”
Taste any of the dishes on Kelsey’s menu and it’s hard not to be.
Standout appetizers include bang bang shrimp ($8.95), popcorn shrimp fried crispy and glazed with a spicy yet sweet sauce; catfish nuggets ($8.99) breaded with Jackson’s signature coating; and the Southern-style crab cake ($10.99) that has a great flavor, texture and is loaded with crab.
“One thing about a lot of restaurants is they don’t season their breading,” Jackson explains. “They use plain flour or plain cornmeal and expect you to add salt and pepper yourself. I don’t want to do that as a consumer. I want the food to taste good when it comes to the table. So that’s what we do. It’s all about fresh food. The reason the catfish melts in your mouth is because it’s fresh, breaded to order then fried. It’s about passion. It’s about doing it right.”
Must-try entrees include the Southern fried chicken and waffle ($14.99) smothered with gravy; the fried whiting fish ($14.99); authentic slow-smoked St. Louis-style pork ribs ($15.99) with Kelsey’s homemade BBQ sauce; and Lewis’ famous Creole dishes, including an amazing shrimp Etouffee with Andouille sausage and white rice. Entrees include two sides and a dinner salad with popular sides including macaroni and cheese, collard greens, candied yams and Southern-style potato salad.
“I know how to cook a lot of soul food, and so does Willie, but he fills another void by bringing his Cajun recipes to the table,” Jackson says. “The two of us have really put our minds together on this menu, and I think we have something special.”
Kelsey’s prices also are reasonable, another possible reason Redding’s did not succeed.
“His prices were high,” Jackson says. “And people still think my prices are high. But we do it right using the freshest ingredients, not frozen stuff or sauce out of a can. It might take a little longer, but it’s worth it. We’re not Golden Corral.”
Even most of the desserts are made in-house by Kim Jackson, including sweet potato pie, sweet potato cheesecake, peach cobbler, bread pudding, vanilla cake with chocolate icing and coconut cake.
“Kim is my best friend and my partner and there is no one else I would like to have this adventure with,” Jackson says. “I dreamed of a place like this and I am committed to making it work.”
Kelsey’s is currently offering live music Fridays and Saturdays, but owner Kelsey Jackson says that schedule will expand to about four nights a week in the spring and summer. “We are going to have jazz, R&B, gospel, blues, R&B,” he says. “We want to be the no-brainer place to go when looking for live music and great food. I want people to think of us just like they think of Warmdaddy’s in Philadelphia. They don’t’ have to go all the way there anymore.” The current schedule includes the Eddie Morgan Trop 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 18, and Saturday, Jan. 26; Jackie Greggs 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19; and a DJ 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 25. Kelsey’s also will add a gospel brunch with live music possibly by the end of February.
Kelsey’s vs. Kelsey & Kim’s
Owners Kelsey and Kim Jackson want to make their new Kentucky Avenue restaurant — Kelsey’s — a little different than their other two restaurants. So while you can get pigs feet and liver and onions at the Melrose location, you can’t get them on Kentucky Avenue, just like you won’t get Chef Willie Lewis’ Creole dishes that include jambalaya and a seafood pot at Melrose. “Many of the recipes are the same in all three locations,” Kelsey Jackson says. “But there are some things you won’t find at all three places to differentiate them.”