Communion Proves Soul Food Thrives Outside of the South

Ancestors and comfort drive chef Kristi Brown and her son, Damon Bomar, at their Seattle restaurant.

Communion | Photo by Chona Kasinger
Communion | Photo by Chona Kasinger

Communion is in an inconspicuous space. Inside a new multi-use building in the heart of Seattle’s Central District, the soul food restaurant feels like the pulse of the community, which is what makes its name so fitting.

From the outside it feels like just another spot in a big city as Seattle grows a mile a minute, but once you cross the threshold into the restaurant you can feel it—the vibes, the music, the conversation, the community, and the soul.

It was named among 12 of the top restaurants in the world by Conde Nast Traveler in 2021. It landed on the New York Times restaurant list, too. The restaurant is always abuzz, busy and booked with locals and folks from far away places longing for home.

After all, soul food isn’t confined by geographic boundaries. It isn’t restricted to certain regions or groups. It is simply memory manifested into a taste of home. The flavors of which hit you in the chest like a memory unlocked.

The menu changes with the seasons, reminiscent of The Edna Lewis Cookbook authored by the eponymous Southern chef who brought soul food cookery to a wider audience. Now Brown is bringing her Seattle-inflected soul food to the fore in this corner of the country.

The bar at Communion
The bar at Communion | Photo by Chona Kasinger

Find Hood Sushi, Brown’s tongue-in-cheek take on the ubiquitous Seattle dish. Rather than sashimi-grade fish, cornmeal-crusted and fried catfish is rolled with tangy remoulade, pickled vegetables, and rice. The Gumbo Pho is a nod to Seattle’s Vietnamese community and the classic soul food soup, whose crab and chicken broth is summer for two days then seasoned with gumbo spices and fish sauce; grilled okra, gingery chicken, mushrooms, and vermicelli rice noodles cozy up in a bowl that tastes of two places at once.

“I think that people are hungry for more than just food, they need that sense of home. Oh, my god they need it, they don’t have no sense of it, and even if they go back home there’s no home there,” says Brown, chef and co-owner of Communion. “Food is that home space for me.”

She launched That Brown Girl Cooks, her long-time catering-meets-community service and hummus side hustle, which predates Communion, years ago. It was how Brown built her loyal following in Seattle. (Don’t get me started on her life-changing hummus.) Naturally the black eyed pea hummus that made her a household name is on the menu at Communion, served alongside roasted collard green dip, zuhg, seasonal pickled vegetables and buttery hoe cakes. It’s the Blackest charcuterie board, or relish tray as it says on the menu, you’ll ever experience.

chef Kristi Brown
Chef Kristi Brown | Photo by Zorn B Taylor

“That Brown Girl Cooks!” is tattooed on Kristi’s forearm—a constant reminder of her friend and co-worker Lamont Stovall, who came to work for her almost 17 years ago and proclaimed that very phrase in response to Brown’s glorious food. Lamont passed this past October. His death challenged Brown to grieve a teammate while simultaneously leading new ones in the fledgling restaurant.

Her tattoo isn’t the only way she honors lost loved ones. There’s a spot for the souls themselves: An altar sits at the back of the restaurant beautifully displaying the ancestors that ushered chef Kristi Brown and her son, Damon Bomar, to this place, this plane, these plates. “My parents are gone, gone, gone, most of the folks are gone, I’ve got one uncle and one older cousin; one in particular that’s more like an auntie. And you know It’s just important that they have their seat at the table,” Brown says. “I give them lots of beverages; they are very well quenched.”

“I think that people are hungry for more than just food, they need that sense of home.”

I really needed to hear that for my own grief. These last few years we’ve all experienced loss as so many have departed. (I myself now have an altar for the first time following my husband and mother’s deaths in 2020. It’s allowed for me not to live at a loss so much as a transition of our relationships.)

Lamont doesn’t sit on the altar just yet. However, his legacy is solidified on the menu: Unc’s Fried Chicken Wings. It’s Communion’s ode to Thompson’s Point of View, a Seattle institution that served Louisiana-style food since 1986 and resided next door until it closed over a decade ago, and its famous fried chicken. Those wings—and the Southern hospitality of the restaurant that served them for years—were legendary. Seattle isn’t new to soul food, even if the Pacific Northwest city doesn’t spring to mind when it comes to this cuisine. But, like community and like the soul, it’s something that has to be nourished and fed.

The altar at Communion | Photo by Chona Kasinger

Brown and Bomar have cultivated something holy. A place where diners break bread—namely buttery cornbread served on a mini cast iron skillet—with the past and present.

“When he was seven I was like, ‘What are you gonna do?’ He’s like, ‘I’m gonna be a bartender so I can get all the girls.’” I won’t comment on the former, but he did become a bartender. Bomar attended Howard University then he came home to build a food empire with his mother.
Bomar oversees the spirits—on the bar, not the altar—where the libations are as comforting as the food.

If skillet cornbread is the glutinous Eucharist, Bomar pours sacramental spirits. The Kinfolk features bourbon, Jamaican rum, Cynar, and toasted pecan liqueur for a smooth sipper that feels as fitting in Seattle as it would in the South. He uses Uncle Nearest Tennessee whiskey (the story goes Nearest taught Jack Daniel how to make the brown liquor) for a bottled old-fashioned with honey and mint. The whiskey also appears in an apple brandy cocktail that’s refreshing and minty, too.

Communion requires a spiritual exchange. The restaurant makes good on its name by providing food and drink that feed one’s spirit.

What sets this soul food apart—what makes the Seattle-sourced ingredients and depthless soul of Brown’s food make Communion stand out—is the space Brown has created. The music, the food, the family, and the proclamation at the door: I am home.”

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Eula Scott Bynoe is a contributor to Thrillist.