In Delray Beach, a father and daughter tour of history

Lori Durante drives through the quickly changing avenues of Delray Beach with none of the nonchalance of a native. She was born and raised in this seaside city and knows each corner by heart. Even random storefronts and facades seem to speak to her. 

Then again, when Dad’s in the car, they do. 

Durante is a local guide who leads culinary history tours. Her father, Kenneth Durante, 83, is local history. During the segregation era, he worked as a traveling waiter, serving seasonally at upscale restaurants and resorts up and down the east coast. Many of those seasons were spent working in South Florida, and at least two of them at the old Patio restaurant in Delray Beach, a place that now exists only in grainy photographs and memory. 

“This was the line of demarcation,” says Lori, as her van nears Swinton Avenue. She appears to thinks of it each time she approaches the street, the same way she can stop at any of downtown’s vintage buildings and rattle off their lineage. 

Swinton is the street that divides east from west in Delray, but that’s not the demarcation she’s talking about. She glances over to the passenger seat, where her father only nods. Swinton Avenue still resonates in the fog of years. 

In the 1960s, he ventured across Swinton mostly when dressed in tuxedo pants, red jacket, white dress shirt, bow tie and black shoes. The work uniform was his passport to the city where white people dined and shopped and frolicked on the beach. 

The memories come in slow glimmers to him as Lori drives west of Swinton and into the area known as the West Settlers Historic District, where a largely Bahamian population established the city’s first African-American community in the 1890s. 

Most of her father’s memories are nudged by places that used to be something else. The Patio restaurant? The Atlantic Avenue corner where it once stood is now dominated by a Northern Trust Bank. 

On Northwest Fourth Avenue, Lori parks outside one structure that still bears its original name, La France. Today, it’s the site of city-owned, affordable housing for seniors, a two-building complex that has been updated and expanded. It used to be an extended-stay lodge, the temporary home to many African-American waiters, chauffeurs and butlers on the traveling circuit. 

“The historic La France Hotel,” Lori announces in full tour-guide mode, although the only “tourist” in the van is the reporter looking out the back window. Lori tends to do this, to behold the world around her in historical terms. “It opened in 1949. It is the first black-owned hotel in Delray Beach, and it was owned by a man named Charlie Patrick, who named the hotel after his wife, Francenia.” 

Her father steps out of the van and strolls over to the original building, then stops to contemplate the newer sign: “La France Apartments,” it reads. 

He called this place home for a while. The La France, he says, was where he could unwind from a demanding job. 

“I remember having fun here,” he says, smiling. “We’d come out of our rooms, go downstairs and play cards, and just talk. That was about all you could do – there was nothing else offered.” 

Kenneth Durante stayed here well before he met Charlotte, the woman who would become his wife and the mother of their two children, Tony and Lori. He was single, an independent traveler, a waiter who could describe a restaurant’s more nuanced dishes and gauge an evening’s tips by a diner’s eagerness to impress a date. He was a quiet eavesdropper who soaked up the stories and cosmopolitan lingo of well-heeled diners. He absorbed all of this, fortifying his days with west-of-Swinton soul food lunches, for a cause greater than his wallet or the here and now. 

This is what his daughter believes with all her historian heart. 

“What’s important to know is that these African-American waiters, like my father, provided an important labor force. They were trained on how to present fine dining and how to serve food in any fine dining setting,” she says. 

Also important, she says, is the role these hospitality veterans played in the post-segregation rise of the African-American upper class, she says. “As they rose up in wealth in society, they learned fine dining as well. When they learned it, it came from that black father, that black uncle, that black brother who was a waiter for a fine dining establishment.” 

Lori and her father venture into the building and they find the entry hallway is lined with vintage black-and-white photos and historical blurbs. When they come to a sepia-toned photo of the original hotel, Lori asks her father a question. 

“Can you show me where your room was?” 

“I’d walk up the steps and I used to stay right up there,” he says, pointing at a window at the end of an outdoor staircase. “But they remodeled the place and it doesn’t look the same as it used to.” 

Lori captures the images on the wall with her cellphone. She is her father’s memory-keeper, the daughter who gathers his recollections and places them in a proper frame. She’s the one with the footnotes and bookmarks, making modern sense of it all. Her father’s teachings add to her own research and legwork, all of which add layers to her Taste History Culinary Tours of Palm Beach County

The West Settlers District, for instance? This is where her father brought the hospitality skills he had learned in his native Goldsboro, NC, where he had worked at a prominent local hotel. It was at the Goldsboro Hotel where a hospitality instructor named Mrs. Howard taught Kenneth and his coworkers all about fancy food. 

“We learned all the terms – the sauté, filet, chateaubriand, the tableside Caesar salad, the sauces,” he says. 

But there was more to being a waiter than mastering lessons about food and proper table-setting style. 

“The job taught you how to deal with people,” he says. “You learned a lot just by overhearing conversations, and knowing how to listen.” 

Delray was meant to be just a stop on his multi-city tour. 

“I worked in Florida, North Carolina, Washington D.C., New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, all over,” he says. 

The traveling was not new for the fifth child of eight kids born to a furniture warehouse worker and a laundress. During high school summers, Kenneth would travel to northeastern Pennsylvania to scrub pots in mountain resort kitchens. After graduation, the traveling waiter jobs would help establish him as a businessman. 

Delray was never the destination, but it’s where he settled. That path was set when he met his future wife in Long Island, where he was a waiter and she was a nutrition major working with a local family. It was Charlotte Durante who had fallen in love with Palm Beach County while working on her master’s degree, studying the nutritional patterns of migrant families in Belle Glade. 

The couple settled in Delray in 1968 and started a family. Several years later, Kenneth opened a janitorial services and property management business, where he still works today. 

On a recent day, he wears a polo shirt printed with his company name, “Kenland II,” as he takes a seat in a small, west-of-Swinton restaurant that operates in a historic building. It used to be Miss Magg’s, a soul food spot where he would come for breakfast or lunch to fuel up for his evening shifts. Today, the place is Sweet’s Sensational Cuisine & Catering, a Jamaican restaurant. 

The restaurant is a familiar stop in some of Lori’s culinary tours. On this day, she greets the owner, Ivet Henry, but soon learns the woman has bad news to share. Her mother has died in Jamaica. 

Lori offers her condolences and lingers at the counter to chat with the owner, who shares an uncanny detail: Her mother’s burial place will be under a certain mango tree. 

“The mango tree where she had the convulsions?” Lori asks. 

“That’s the one,” says the owner. 

Turns out, when Henry’s mother was pregnant, she got sick one day and went into convulsions beneath that tree. 

“This means you’re going to have a sweet baby!” people told her at the time. This is how Ivet “Sweet” Henry got her nickname. 

Lori knows this story and tells it so well that one can imagine it sprinkled into one of her culinary tours. It is a story within a story, one bit of history revealing itself in a place where an entirely different story unfolded decades ago. 

This place, where Kenneth Durante frequented for stewed meat, collards and biscuits now serves Jamaican oxtail beneath the gaze of a Bob Marley poster. And there, amid all of its west-of-Swinton ghosts, a father and daughter can share a meal and write new stories.

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