In honor of Galentine’s Day, and to cheer us up in the face of bitter cold temperatures, my daughter Isabelle and I headed to Vivian’s Soul Food for dinner. I had been once before, at their original location on 16th Ave SW in Cedar Rapids, for a Bernie Sanders event; I was impressed with the amazing food and the warmth and attentiveness of their staff, so I was excited to check out their new space and expanded menu.
Spouses Jerome and Briana Smallwood opened Vivian’s in 2017 to showcase classic soul food and fill a void they saw in the Cedar Rapids restaurant scene. The business is named after Jerome’s mother, who taught him how to cook. The restaurant has been so successful that after less than three years in business, they needed bigger digs.
The new and improved Vivian’s is housed in a building that once held a Zio Johno’s. The first thing I noticed on entering was the vibrant and welcoming décor featuring bold wall colors and furniture to match. The owners’ love of music is evident everywhere you look, from the floor-to-ceiling paintings of black musicians to a guitar mounted on the wall to a playlist of R&B, soul and rap songs spanning five decades — including Beyoncé, Jay-Z, James Brown and the Temptations — soundtracking your meal. The space is also much larger than the old one, with more than double the amount of seating.
We were greeted by a friendly hostess and seated opposite a large portrait of an Afroed soul singer. The server who helped us was attentive, friendly and, thinking I was underage, offered me a drink from their selection of Coke products, which immediately improved my day.
In addition to more space and a new look, Vivian’s now features a full bar serving cocktails and beer. After scrutinizing my ID, our server let me order an old fashioned, which was delicious and warming. They’ve also expanded their menu, adding appetizers and a number of new dishes to their selection of daily dinner specials. Prices range from $5-14 for appetizers and the dinner options range from $13-24. Most include two side dishes and a cornbread muffin.
It was hard to choose with so many delicious-sounding options, but Izzy settled on Jayanni’s Favorite Shrimp with candied yams and macaroni and cheese and I chose the fried chicken, candied yams and collard greens.
Our food arrived quickly and looked so amazing, I couldn’t wait to dive in. As a person who doesn’t like the things on my plate to touch each other, I appreciated that the side dishes were served in ramekins that sat on the plate with the main entrée. My fried chicken was crispy and perfectly cooked on the inside, and the greens were tender and delicately spicy. I don’t know what they put on their candied yams, but I have been staunchly against sweet yam dishes for years and Vivian’s has forced me to reconsider my opinion.
In the name of thoroughness, I tried Izzy’s food, too. The shrimp was tender and savory and the mac and cheese was so good I ended up ordering some for myself. The portions are generous; Izzy rose to the occasion and finished hers, but I took enough leftovers home to have a substantial lunch the following day. We also ordered desserts — peach cobbler for her and caramel cake for me — at $6 apiece. We took them home to eat in front of the TV, and in keeping with the rest of the meal, they were both excellent and large enough that we each had some left over to enjoy the next day.
The philosophy that underpinned the food and restaurant, Jerome told me, involves fresh ingredients, keeping things simple and familiar — but above all, doing things the right way.
“I’m about not cutting corners,” he said. “There might be an easier way, or a faster way, but that isn’t always the right way.”