leila’s-dinette,-a-safe-haven-for-the-soul

Leila’s Dinette, a safe haven for the soul

Lifestyle

The late Leila Williams was the longtime proprietor and restauranteur of Leila’s Dinette, a Westside eatery that served its community and groomed a number of successful politicians and businessmen. (Elyssa Benzie / AP Photo via AJC)

The year was 1949 on the Westside of Atlanta: Leila Williams and her husband Charlie would open the doors of a new cafe at 1017 Fair Street amidst the shadows of the Atlanta University Center, Leila’s Dinette. 

Williams, born in Union Point, Georgia, on Nov. 14, 1912, migrated as an adult to Atlanta, where she was a faithful employee of Busy Bee Café. However, after opening her own restaurant, anyone that entered the brick establishment soon became aware that she was one of God’s favorites.

The little diner at the bottom of the hill on Fair Street served food from the soul of the South. In fact, Williams’ diner became known to have lines wrapped around the corner of people waiting to get into the “safe haven of Fair Street.” 

Opening at dawn for breakfast until her last customer was served around 10 p.m., Leila’s Dinette featured a full menu of Southern soul food staples, including breakfast classics like grits, eggs, bacon, salmon croquettes to dinner favorites like braised collard greens, smothered cabbage, fried chicken, baked chicken, fried fish, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, stewed beef, and more. 

But Williams was best known for her egg custard, many have been heard to say, “it was the best they have ever had in their lives.” Williams ensured that everyone would have something to eat, whether he or she could afford to pay or not.

Many of her customers were students from the Atlanta University Center looking to flee the dining hall of their prospective schools, and included popular Morehouse Men such as Samuel L. Jackson, William Edwards, but not limited to Paul Howard. 

On her days she wasn’t at the diner, Williams would prepare soup and cornbread for community families to eat. 

African-Americans from all walks of life enjoyed dining at Leila’s Dinette, “because you would come for food, stay for the company and check your ego at the door,” said Julius Hollis, a longtime financial consultant in Atlanta. 

Leila’s Dinette was one of a handful of restaurants/think tanks to which SCLC leaders would flock to grab a home-cooked meal and leave the weight of the world on your empty plate. 

In fact, Maynard Jackson was known to meet his chief of staff Walter Huntley for a fried chicken sandwich and discuss details of the now first-class Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport or the newest young future leaders of Atlanta. 

Further, the late Morehouse President and beloved educator Dr.Benjamin E. Mays would often be seen at Leila’s in between meetings and lectures.

Upon opening her eatery, one would wonder if Williams would have dreamt of serving a president, mayors, congressmen, elected officials, business leaders, and some of Atlanta’s most precious gifts. 

Not to mention, Willams became one of the first funding sources for Atlanta’s first and only African-American Airlines, “Air Atlanta.”

After an early collective investment of $35,000 by Willams and Virginia R. Hollis — the mother of serial entrepreneur Michael Hollis — a $3.5-million deal was struck between Hollis and the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees Union over a meal in Leila’s in 1980. 

Michael Hollis would also be credited with forming a broadcasting company, helped establish a petroleum company, launched a debt-collections company 

Ten years following that historical moment Leila’s Dinette closed its doors in the early 90s, leaving behind with it a void on Fair Street. 

However, Williams would live on to see the first African-American U.S. President become elected after living through the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement, which got its bearings in the very neighborhood her diner was located. 

Williams also most recently witnessed another historic moment in America’s history—the election of the first woman of color as Madame Vice-President, before being called home to glory on Feb. 3, 2021. She was 108 years old.