Comfort food means something different to everyone. The connection between a specific food and the personal feeling of comfort it provides often stems from childhood, family tradition, or memories of the loving hands of one’s own grandmother preparing the dish. Every now and then, a new place manages to capture that feeling of comfort and provide it for all of us. Florence's, an east side Oklahoma City gem, is one of those places. I have eaten here several times and am always eager to return. Upon entry, every patron is greeted by the happy faces of diners enjoying a lovingly prepared meal.
A few of us from the Edible OKC staff decided to meet up at Florence's to eat and hopefully get a chance to chat with Florence herself. I couldn’t help but notice that as she made her way from the kitchen to see us, she was stopped along the way by friendly folks wanting to say hello and give her a handshake or a hug. The pride on her face as she walked by each table and greeted customers as if they were all old friends was evident. She and her daughter, Victoria, sat with us awhile and shared stories about their beloved establishment.
When we first began our conversation, I mentioned that a lot of their dishes instantly take me back to my childhood. I reminisced with them about how the chicken neck bones were a favorite dish of mine as a child and told them both how delighted I was to see that dish as one of the weekly specials. Her daughter said, “That really is our goal, we want you to remember those dishes and that's why everything we do is very labor intensive. We really do peel those potatoes for those mashed potatoes, peel the yams every day." These ladies know what is important in their dishes and they put in the work. To me, taking a friend to Florence’s is like taking someone home with you to grandma's. It has that special Sunday afternoon feeling and as they say, "It’s got a lot of love in it."
Owner Florence Jones Kemp tells us that’s exactly how she learned to cook. She grew up following her mother around in the kitchen and learning by "walking around in the kitchen and doing everything she did.” I asked her how they manage to keep things so consistent, consistency being one of the many reasons regulars always find their way back. Victoria said they make a conscientious effort to train their staff to prepare food exactly the way she and her mother do. "It's not what goes into the food as much as how it's prepared." This effort of getting other kitchen staff involved in the preparation is somewhat new as Florence and Victoria prepared everything themselves for quite a long time. They are hoping for more growth and another round of expansion on top of one that occurred at the beginning of this past year, and they are committed to expanding without losing that hands-on, personal feel.
When I asked Florence to identify her favorites from the menu, she understandably had a hard time choosing. After tossing around several delicious options, we began to discuss their fried chicken, more specifically, their yam fried chicken. Everyone within earshot began to ooh and ahhh in agreement. This is a dish I’d never heard of before trying it here and it is indeed the first dish that comes to mind when someone mentions Florence’s. It begins with perfectly seasoned crispy fried chicken tossed and coated with a sweet yam puree and it is absolutely delicious. A lot of the menu items have been there from the beginning, since the original location on 916 NE 4th street which opened its doors in 1952. In 1969, Florence’s moved to the current location. They have added a few dishes since then, the chicken fried steak being one, but have stayed true to their original plan of a family restaurant with a homey feel. Victoria, who jokes that her name is "Florence's daughter,” mentions that the Monday special of pot roast is one of her favorites and reminds her of Sundays spent at her grandmother's house. She also shares that the lemonade, which is fresh-squeezed, "reminds me of stampeding into the house and she would have a punch bowl of lemonade, I still have the punch bowl. It is beautiful, I don't know where she got it!” From a young age, Victoria learned hospitality as well as appreciation for family from her grandmother. These lessons were reinforced for Victoria in her mother’s restaurant, where she arrived straight after school to do homework and help out. No wonder it feels like a home. It is one.
One thing that shines true at Florence’s is their love for their clientele. It’s apparent from the warm way you’re greeted and treated like family as you walk in. When you take that first bite of Florence’s cooking, you experience that love. Food just doesn’t taste that good unless the person preparing it truly cares about the person who will be eating it. It is no wonder that they have some regulars who come for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all in the same day. Florence says, "I have a few that were with me on 4th street." Our staff certainly loved Florence's and we all plan to make our way back time and time again!
> Florence’s Restaurant, 1437 NE 23rd St, Oklahoma City