Food & Drink

Mt. Vernon’s Darker Than Blue Gets a Reboot

Chef Casey Jenkins discusses reviving his Southern comfort food cafe, which closed its Waverly location in 2015.
—Photography by Justin Tsucalas

Prior to becoming a chef, Casey Jenkins was in the United States Marine Corps, cooking for the infantrymen. “I was cooking for 3,000 marines at a clip,” says Jenkins, owner of the Mt. Vernon Southern comfort food spot Darker Than Blue Grille. “Our chow halls were the size of apartment buildings.”

After his tour of duty, Jenkins was contemplating college, when his mother attended an event at the famed Culinary Institute of America in New York. “She said, ‘I just came from this fundraiser at this great cooking school,’” he recalls. “I did a little research and said, ‘Wow, this really is a good cooking school,’ but I didn’t know it was the best in the world until I got there.”

Having cooked for the troops, Jenkins figured his studies would be a snap. “I knew how to cook,” he says, “but I wasn’t making velouté and béchamel.” Once he started to master these new techniques, “I loved it,” he says. “That’s when I decided I wanted to open a restaurant.”

You closed your first Darker Than Blue Café in Waverly in 2015. Why did you decide to give it another go?
I was shopping around another concept for more of a Southern buffet to-go, when I ran into Maurice Iames of Maryland Capital Enterprises. He said, “I don’t think anyone is going to finance that other restaurant—why don’t you reopen Darker Than Blue? People still talk about it regularly and you were closed for eight years.” That’s when I got the financing for Darker Than Blue.

Tell me about the menu.
The food is straightforward, nothing chichi. After the market crashed in 2008, I learned that people need to be able to go out and feed their families. It made me go back to what my mother cooked, real Southern food. First-timers always get wowed by the Southern platter—a half fried chicken with sides like our macaroni and cheese with blue cheese and cheddar. Also, they love the blackened catfish.

How did you come up with the name for the restaurant?
In the early 2000s, my best friend Mark and I were trying to write this business plan and were coming up with names, but we put it on the back burner. It had gotten to the point where I was like, “There’s this place in New York called The Coffee Shop—and it was a coffee shop. Let’s just call it, The Restaurant!” And he was like, “We have to think of something snazzy.” Then one day, he comes in with a grin on his face saying he has a name. He puts on this CD and the song comes on, “We people who are darker than blue. . .” and I looked at him and said, “Darker Than Blue!” and it stuck. Darker Than Blue is the best thing to describe being an African American in the U.S. and putting out Low Country food of the diaspora.

What’s it been like to reopen?
At the grand opening, I expected only about 30 people there but there were easily 150 people—it made me a little emotional. I said, “I don’t have customers anymore, I have friends and family that come and dine with me.”