I “met” B. Smith the day I started my career at ESSENCE. It was 1984 and as I walked through the glass doors of the lobby, there she was, her dark chocolate face smiling out at me, from an ESSENCE cover that hung on the wall. Bright-eyed and hopeful, I saw her and other gorgeous Black women whose images proclaimed all that we can be, and I felt buoyed up. Fortified. Sure that anything was possible.
Soon after I met B. Smith in person. The former model had set her sights on becoming a businesswoman, and in 1986 she launched her first restaurant, B. Smith’s, in the Theater District in New York City. Even though I was only two years into my tenure in the Big Apple, I knew being on Restaurant Row was a huge accomplishment. What B. created was nothing short of breathtaking. Surrounded by vintage New York City restaurants and diners filled with dark-leather banquettes and leather-backed wooden chairs, low lighting and hard-charging waiters and waitresses, B. Smith’s presented a breath of fresh air. With high ceilings in a bright open space the restaurant featured modern furnishings, an eclectic, soul-inspired menu and a bevy of beautiful models/servers, like herself.
At the time I worked in the Contemporary Living department, which included food. With our legendary food editor, Jonell Nash, we produced a feature story that would bring B. Smith’s magical restaurant into ESSENCE readers’ homes. Among the prized recipes showcased was her signature, individually sized pecan pie. I can still taste it to this day.
B. Smith was a class act. She had a head for business and a manner so warm and inclusive that she made you feel that you belonged in this world that she had envisioned and brought to life in the heart of Manhattan. Every time I went to B. Smith’s there was a potpourri of celebrities, models, business people, and tourists. Unlike the general complexion of Broadway theaters (much to the chagrin of the industry that still puzzles over how to attract us to their shows), at B. Smith’s, the cultural melange of patrons represented the breadth and depth of the nation’s mecca, always with a healthy mix of Black folk.
B. Smith was often compared to Martha Stewart, but I think Ralph Lauren is a better match. Much like the fashion icon who designed a world in which he wanted to live, she showcased the life she was living and made it available to all.Harriette Cole
I watched B. Smith work with her husband and business partner, Dan Gasby, to expand her vision in what was once-unthinkable ways. From Restaurant Row to Union Station in Washington, D.C. to Sag Harbor in the Hamptons, she opened restaurants with the same flair, cuisine and savoir faire that defined the flagship. The first time I got off of a train in D.C. and visited her restaurant there–that took up a whole wing of the station–I was so proud, a tear escaped my eye. A Black woman owned this?! Apart from the fact that I had known B. for many years by then, making the accomplishment also personal to me, I couldn’t help but note the context of the moment. Most of the other Black people employed at Union Station worked in service roles—as red caps, shoe shine men, sanitation workers, waiters and, occasionally, ticket agents. B. raised the bar on what service meant by offering the most upscale eatery that hub had ever seen.
Bringing her restaurant to Sag Harbor was no less remarkable. Yes, she and her husband had built a second home in the nearby historically African American community of Sag Harbor Hills, but opening up shop in the heart of a small Long Island town known as the vacation hub for elite White families was simply unheard of.
B. Smith never allowed race, gender, skin color or anything else to stand in the way of her vision. She wrote—but really produced—exquisite cookbooks that illustrated a luxe yet accessible lifestyle. She was often compared to Martha Stewart, but I think Ralph Lauren is a better match. Much like the fashion icon who designed a world in which he wanted to live, she showcased the life she was living and made it available to all. Her magazine and TV show, B. Smith With Style, brought her ideas to a national audience. Her licensing deal with Bed Bath and Beyond introduced her household concepts into people’s homes. B. Smith was constantly searching for ways to invite people into a world of beauty, grace, and style.
It was my privilege to know Barbara, aka B., for all of these years and for our paths to intersect in many memorable ways in the city and in the Hamptons. Most meaningful to me were my interactions with her and my now 90-year-old mother. For decades my mother would come to New York City on a bus with a group of women from Baltimore to see a Broadway performance, a longstanding tradition in Black America. Our annual date consisted of me meeting the group on Restaurant Row for brunch before they went to their matinee. On several occasions we dined at B. Smith’s. Each time, B. rolled out the red carpet, welcoming this group of beaming Baltimorean elders with so much class that they couldn’t wait to come back again.
B. Smith personified grace. She was living proof that you could reach the stars and dwell there while remaining grounded in our rich cultural heritage. B. Smith offered her signature twinkling smile and spark of elegance to each person who crossed her path. We are all the better for it. May her spirit live on.
Harriette Cole (@harriettecole) is the former editor of the Contemporary Living department and former fashion director of ESSENCE. Founder of Dreamleapers, an educational platform designed to help people access and activate their dreams, Cole currently coaches entertainers, business leaders and students on how to present themselves effectively.