Syracuse, N.Y. – It all started in 2017 when Corre Williams took a trip to Philadelphia for the NFL Draft and the famous Penn Relays track meet.
The Syracuse resident met a mutual friend who told him about a restaurant in the region they should visit called Seafood Haven. “We all met up over there and we had a great time,” Williams said. “It’s a wonderful place.”
Corre Williams befriended the restaurant’s owner, Tony Williams, and they kept in touch. Then a couple of years later, Corre Williams came to a Syracuse community forum where he learned that the former B&B Cocktail Lounge on South Avenue was ready for redevelopment. He immediately thought of Seafood Haven and approached the forum’s organizer, Jubilee Homes, with the idea.
It wasn’t long before it all fell in place, said Walt Dixie, the longtime executive director at Jubilee.
“(Tony Williams) came up here and fell in love with the building,” Dixie said.
He also fell in love with the developer who was looking to renovate the B&B, Home HeadQuarters. The Syracuse-based nonprofit, which does mostly residential neighborhood revitalization work, had recently completed a mixed-use building project on the city’s west side, the site of the Ponchito’s Taqueria on West Fayette Street. Tony Williams took a look at that project and was sold on the idea of partnering with the Syracuse organizations.
Construction on the $1.3 million project is about to get started. The Syracuse Common Council on Monday approved a modification to the property’s special use permit, which allows the work to move forward. By the fall of 2024, the Seafood Haven restaurant and two affordable apartments on the second floor should be complete.
“It’s all systems go now,” said Kerry Quaglia, Home HeadQuarters chief executive officer. “We’ve been excited to get this off the ground.”
The Syracuse location for Seafood Haven will represent a return to the restaurant’s New York state roots. Tony Williams’ father opened the original business of the same name in 1967 in Harlem, and it built a vast following over the next two decades.
“Seafood Haven served thousands of seafood lovers from all five boroughs; as well as from as far away as New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and North/South Carolina,” the restaurant says on its website.
Tony Williams, owner of Seafood Haven restaurant in Willingboro, New Jersey, strikes a playful pose in front of a sign at a 2021 event announcing his plans to open a location in the former B&B Cocktail Lounge in Syracuse.
Tony Williams remembers watching his father’s new business grow from a “hole in the wall” into a Harlem destination.
“Cars double- and triple-parked outside the location,” he said.
Tony Williams took over the business for a short time after his father died in 1985, but he had also launched a career as a teacher. The restaurant eventually closed, and Tony Williams and his family moved to Willingboro, New Jersey, which sits between Trenton and Philadelphia.
Now in his 41st year of teaching, Tony said he had no plans to reopen Seafood Haven until about 10 years ago when he noticed a plaza storefront where a produce shop had operated previously. As weeks went by, he got more curious. He still remembers the first time he pressed his face to the window to look inside and thought it was time to recreate what his father built many years earlier.
“We prayed on it a little bit, and the rest is history,” he said.
Seafood Haven’s rebirth started in 2014, with the Harlem restaurant’s same commitment to seafood that’s always made fresh. Tony Williams said that’s always been the key to success.
In the years since reopening, the restaurant frequently welcomes customers who tell them stories about patronizing the original Harlem location.
“They are well-known,” Dixie, of Jubilee Homes, said.
He noted that a friend in Rochester recently told him that she’s been to the New Jersey restaurant and is excited about visiting a closer location.
Tony Williams has brought Seafood Haven food up to Syracuse a few times in the past couple of years to cater Jubilee events.
“Their food is amazing,” Dixie said.
Architect Sekou Cooke's rendering shows the exterior appearance planned for the former B&B Lounge on South Avenue in Syracuse.
Getting the project to this point has taken some extra time because of a key piece of funding. The state is providing $300,000 as part of its Downtown Revitalization Initiative program, a $10 million effort focused on the city’s southwest commercial corridors of West Onondaga Street and South Avenue. The state did not finalize the list of funded projects until December 2022. And since that time, the state required an environmental review as part of its standard grant administration process.
Additional funding includes a $395,000 economic development grant from Onondaga County. HomeHeadquarters will cover the rest through a combination of its own equity and bank financing, Quaglia said.
HomeHeadquarters will remain the owner of the property going forward, at least initially. The nonprofit’s mixed-use projects include a right of first refusal for the commercial tenant to purchase the site if the business is successful.
In addition to the Ponchito’s project that opened in 2019 on Syracuse’s Near West Side, HomeHeadquarters did a mixed-use project in the Tipp Hill neighborhood featuring a new Recess Coffee location that opened in 2020. Both remain under Home HeadQuarters ownership at this point.
Quaglia said his organization will continue to pursue these types of projects because they complement the work they’re doing to improve housing and promote home ownership in areas that have struggled economically.
“It’s really all about neighborhood revitalization,” Quaglia said.
The establishment that Seafood Haven will replace in Syracuse also holds a special place in the hearts of many neighborhood residents. The B&B originally opened in 1969 and operated as Otto’s Grill for its first 20 years. A pair of entrepreneurs, Billy Ray Denham and Billy Ray McDonald, then bought it and opened B&B, becoming one of the few Black-owned bar and restaurants in the city.
Corre Williams remembers many nights going to the B&B after playing in a basketball league across the street at the Southwest Community Center. But Denham and McDonald retired at the end of 2017, and the site has been vacant since that time. They sold the property for $180,000 to Home HeadQuarters a few months later in the hopes that a similar entrepreneurial story could unfold for a new generation.
Dixie said the new life for the old B&B is crucial for the residents in the South Avenue area.
“It’s a part of our collective vision,” he said. “That’s how you grow cities.”