At Slade’s Bar & Grill, the women have taken the dance floor. Arms around each other’s shoulders, laughing, they move to whatever the DJ is offering. At the bar, the Bucks beat the Nets while customers eat Slade’s famous wings and bartender Stephanie Holloway calls everyone by name. It all feels like a small miracle after so many months of not touching, not dancing together. When Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” cues up, everybody sings. Get me out into the nighttime, four walls won’t hold me tonight.
It seems as though Slade’s has been here forever, its three-dimensional keyboard-and-skyline sign a landmark on Tremont Street. In terms of Boston restaurant history, it practically has — a bastion of hospitality for the Black community since 1935. For decades, Slade’s was listed in “The Negro Motorist Green Book” as a safe and welcoming space to gather, alongside Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe, the former Estelle’s, and other long-gone establishments like Lonie Lee’s, Green Candle, and Sunnyside. So few of them are left; Slade’s remains. Where’s that plaque, now?
This week, Slade’s is part of a new event, Roxbury Restaurant Week, which ends June 19 — the first Juneteenth Massachusetts celebrates as an official holiday. Over the years, the restaurant and nightclub has played host to luminaries like Muhammad Ali, Ted Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. It has always remained Black-owned, most famously by Celtics legend Bill Russell in the 1960s. That’s not the only connection to the team: Leo Papile, who now owns the place with daughter Britney Kyle Papile, was assistant executive director of basketball operations before he retired.
As for Slade himself, “the best way to put it is ‘legend has it,’” Papile says. “Legend has it that, like a lot of guys of that age, Mr. Slade might have been a bootlegger. When things went legal, they swiped up liquor licenses all over the country.” Boston Globe archives bear out at least part of this theory: Renner Slade, doing business as Slade’s Barbecue, applied for a whole lot of licenses at a whole lot of Boston addresses after Prohibition ended, including for 958 Tremont. (At one point, he also declared bankruptcy and auctioned off a battery chicken farm on 120 acres in Abington. So. Many. Wings.)
Other owners followed: a granddaughter of Slade’s; Jesse James Jackson, one of the first Black Marines, who received a Congressional Gold Medal for his service; soon-to-be state Representative Franklin Holgate, who bought the place in 1960 with entrepreneur Irving “Buddy” Robertson.
“I have such fond memories of Slade’s as a child,” says his daughter Amy Robertson Goldson, whose career as a D.C. attorney included time as general counsel to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. “We would go there to have dinner every single Sunday. On Mother’s Day, there were lines around the corner. It was considered a really nice restaurant, where you’d go for Easter all dressed up.” Next door was an upscale cocktail lounge with pale lavender carpet and plush seats, she recalls. Drinks were 99 cents, and the barbecue chicken dinner was $1.65. “The food was great. I loved it. He really had the theater going. By that I mean in the window were skewers with chickens going around and around, being barbecued. He did that also with steaks. I still can remember today what the sweet potatoes and green beans tasted like, and the coleslaw.”
But Slade’s was about more than the food and atmosphere. “My dad was able to mentor young men, giving them jobs as waiters and training them about responsibility. I think that was a very, very important thing. Those people really endured at Slade’s after he sold it,” she says. (Russell made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.) “I think it’s meant a whole lot to the community. My father employed the community. I’m so glad it does live on.”
The family spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard, where her father would join them on the weekend, flying in from the Norwood airport on a tiny plane he bought; he’d buzz over the beach and signal to his family, and they’d know it was time to go pick him up. Her mother still lives on the Vineyard today, at 94. There are close ties between Slade’s and Oak Bluffs, where the waves at Inkwell Beach beckon on hot summer days. “There’s a strong Roxbury community,” Papile says. “In August at the Inkwell, it’s like the whole Slade’s crowd. If there are any complaints, it’s ‘Leo, can we speak to you for a sec?’ It has that community feel to it,” he says.
Martha’s Vineyard is where he met Goldson, before he even bought Slade’s in 2017 with then partners Terryl Calloway and Darryl Settles, entrepreneurs who helped shape the local music scene. (Settles used to own the nearby Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen.) It is one of the many random yet seemingly meant-to-be ways Slade’s intersects with Papile’s life.
The first time it happened was before he was born. His father was a homicide detective, one of 17 kids born to Italian immigrants. One night, the detective showed up at Slade’s. “He might’ve wandered in looking for some fellow, or maybe just to have a couple of pops,” Papile says. Working the coat check was a South End girl who looked like Grace Kelly. And that’s how his parents met.
Papile has vivid memories of going to Slade’s with them as a boy. He remembers the customers in evening gowns and suits, the tuxedoed waiters, the shoeshine guy out front, the chickens turning in the window. “As a kid, you’d walk by and lick your lips.”
Years later, Papile showed up at The Gallery, a club on Mass. Ave. run by one Terryl Calloway, a young impresario. Working there was a South End girl named Kimberly. And that’s how Papile met his wife. Their daughter, Britney, 32, is the new guard of Slade’s Black ownership.
“I’m the newcomer, the new kid in class,” she says with a laugh. “Slade’s has such a legacy. It has an African American Cheers-type vibe. People have been working here so long. Customers are waving at the bartender. It’s literally like Cheers.”
People care about the place, she says, and that has been a huge help over the past year. The pandemic was hard on Slade’s, which employs more than 30 people. It has a strong takeout program but at its heart revolves around live music, karaoke, in-person good times. “Folks were coming by to check up on Slade’s. They’d say, ‘Hey, I’ve been coming here for 50 years!’ That’s amazing. I met so many people in my community and people that love Slade’s. There’s been a lot of hugging with the mask on, people getting emotional. I tell everybody I’m proud to be part of it, to be a new gatekeeper.”
The in-person good times are starting back up again. Outside, patrons perch on picnic tables beside a mural of Frederick Douglass; indoors, the artwork celebrates local Black leaders past and present. The dance floor fills on the weekends. The wings are as good as ever — gargantuan, fried crisp and juicy, generously seasoned and served with hot sauce. The candied yams are aptly named, sweet and rich. Fried nuggets of okra are a perfect bar snack. Maybe you’ll get lucky and show up on a day when oxtail is available. Behind the bar, Holloway glugs tropical juices and rum into a miniature bucket patterned with strawberries, for a pink drink called On the Caribbean that tastes like pure, carefree fun.
“Honestly, we’ve got to make money, of course we want to make money, but it was more like a family heirloom when it became available,” Leo Papile says of Slade’s. The father and daughter bought out Calloway and Settles in 2019. “Britney makes the place go. I meet with her about the finances and sign a few checks, but she’s the engine that makes the vehicle run. I’m eternally proud as a dad and an owner. The granddaughter of a woman who worked there in the ’50s is now the boss. It’s come full circle.”
It’s a true Boston tale, he says. “My grandparents immigrated to Boston from Italy in the 1890s. Brit’s great-grandfather was the son of slaves. Boston’s always been labeled as being divisive. I think in this case it’s inclusive. That’s the message we’d like to hear, especially in this era when, without getting overly political, I think some of those values are being challenged. Every American — new Americans, old Americans — you are more than welcome in our place. That is what makes the nation great.”
Slade’s Bar & Grill, 958 Tremont St., Boston, 617-442-4600, www.sladesbarandgrill.com
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.