Monday, November 19, 2012 at 8:22 a.m.
Some say the origin of chicken and waffles dates back to the 1790s, when Thomas Jefferson brought a waffle iron to the U.S. from France, after which the recipe began appearing in period cookbooks. Another theory says the dish was invented in 1930s Harlem, where late-night eateries started serving it to hungry customers looking for one part dinner, one part breakfast.
Today, the idea of chicken and waffles is something of a soul food style dish -- especially at newly opened Bay Bay's Chicken and Waffles in West Palm Beach, an "urban" bar and grill that is one of the only establishments in Palm Beach or Broward County specializing in the classic combination. Starting at $6.95, Bay Bay's serves the dish in its simplest incarnation: a few pieces of fresh-fried chicken atop a giant, housemade Belgian waffle.
Since opening in mid-September, the 2,000 square foot red stucco building a mile west of I-95 has garnered a unique and devoted crowd, people crammed into the tiny space, seated at one of several high-top tables, or perched along the U-shaped bar that runs the perimeter of the restaurant's exposed prep area.
Owner and founder Israel Johnson told Clean Plate Charlie that he opened Bay Bay's after his day job led him to a startling realization.
"There's just no place that serves chicken and waffles in West Palm Beach -- or the area for that matter," Johnson told Clean Plate Charlie. "So I did the research, and opened my own restaurant."
No stranger to the industry, Johnson -- who also owned and operated a Jamaican restaurant in his hometown of Vero Beach in the early '90s -- has spent much of the past decade teaching others how to start, own and operate restaurants as a college professor for several online universities, including DeVry, Strayer and the University of Phoenix. It wasn't until recently, however, that Johnson decided to open Bay Bay's, named for his favorite skit by comedian Robin Harris.
Open for just under two months, Johnson said it is already a challenge keeping up with the demand for the restaurant's signature dish. He and his staff prep, fry and plate between 800 to 1,000 pieces of chicken each day. According to Johnson, the success is all thanks to careful planning -- including market research -- the same strategies he uses to teach his students.
"This entire operation has been a well thought-out process," said Johnson, who has a 12-step process for preparing the restaurant's fried chicken. "The recipe is based off a family recipe, yes, but it's also the result of testing done over the course of several months. I wanted it to appeal to a wide range of cultures and ethnicities, and for the flavors to be something everyone can enjoy."
Bay Bay's signature dish is -- of course -- chicken and waffles, yet the menu also features a variety of comfort foods and ethnic-focused fare. There are tacos and quesadillas, burgers and salads, all priced under $10, as well as unique pasta dishes that include lobster fettuccine or roasted pepper shrimp pasta.
Another "signature" creation of Johnson's: fajita subs made with chicken, Texas-style rib eye, or a sweet, tangy pulled pork -- the traditional dish of sauteed meat, onions and peppers piled into a fresh sub roll and served with one side. There are also a dishes dubbed "low-carb," which include a Jamaican curry stir highlighting jumbo shrimp sauteed with spinach, red and green peppers, onions and tomatoes, and served with a side of collard greens.
For dessert: why not more waffles? An offbeat choice of lemon or red velvet cake versions come topped with white and chocolate sauces, both served with strawberries, pecans, bananas and vanilla ice cream.
Bay Bay's is open Monday through Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to midnight. For more information visit Bay Bay's website, or call 561-429-3796.
Follow Nicole on Twitter.