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A new restaurant and a soul food connection between students and the community

The Underground Cafe + Lounge. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

A new restaurant focusing on breakfast and lunch is opening on Northeastern’s Boston campus.

The Underground, which is slated to open on Labor Day, is the brainchild of Nia Grace, restaurateur and owner of Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen, a popular local diner where patrons have enjoyed soul food and live jazz for decades. 

Darryl’s, which sits between Boston’s Roxbury and South End neighborhoods, and is located just several blocks away from The Underground on Columbus Avenue, has been a fixture in the Black community for more than half a century. The opening of The Underground, which Grace says will be a soul food-inspired breakfast and lunch spin-off of Darryl’s, will come just two days before the start of the fall semester. News@Northeastern sat down with Grace to learn more about the new venture, the menu, and to hear about how preparations have been going.

Nia Grace, owner of The Underground Cafe + Lounge. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Let’s talk about how this project came together. How long has The Underground been in the making?

The project here, The Underground, was birthed out of our passion for flavorful, soulful food, but in a breakfast and lunch cafe format. We have long served the Northeastern/South End/Roxbury community at Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen, and so we thought it would be great to be closer to the campus and serve it even more directly. We’re really excited to develop this daytime concept because Darryl’s is more dinner service with live music in the evening. But we have a passion for service and good food, which is why we’re here.

I remember when this space became available for retail and I wondered what we could do with it. I thought, it would have to be something different, it would have to be daytime, and it would have to be a spin on what we currently do. But it’s got to have flavor, it’s got to have soul. The idea is to deliver on soul-inspired breakfasts and lunch dishes, as well as your familiar cafe fare and beverages, but just with a twist.

The inside and outside of The Underground Cafe + Lounge, located at 742 Columbus Avenue on Northeastern's Boston campus. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Tell us more about the concept, and where the name of the restaurant comes from.

The concept for us really ties into the history of the neighborhood, and even the history of our food. The Harriet Tubman House, which was our local landmark, was recently demolished to make way for new development. It had historically always been a community gathering point, so we thought, ‘We specialize in building community spaces,’ and The Underground is truly an homage to that history that we cherish. 

I was born and raised in Roxbury, schooled in the South End, and my neighborhood and the heritage is something that’s really important to me, and I want to have an opportunity to connect the student community with the neighborhood that it sits within. Although this is an urban campus, it often can seem disconnected from the original community that has been here, and so we wanted The Underground to be that intersection of culture and community.

Is there a connection to the Underground Railroad?

The Underground for us, in terms of the railroad, was a passageway to freedom. We know that the underground train we call the Orange Line is something that connects between our neighborhood and the diversity of our city. So our thought was that “The Underground” could be that space helping to make those meaningful connections.

Take us through the menu. What dishes can people look forward to?

We serve savory and sweet breakfast and lunch items. From our savory items, you can imagine our breakfast melts and toasts, like smoked salmon with Cajun avocado. We’re doing a different spin on some of the pulled meats that we might put in the panini, so we’re using smoked turkey as a really great base in one of our melts on sourdough bread. 

One of our signature dishes at Darryl’s is our baked macaroni and cheese, so we have a lunch entree portion that can be stuffed with pulled pork and chicken. We also have smoothies as well as salads.

You mentioned coffee, too. Where are you getting it?

So we’re so excited to partner with Dedham-based Fazenda Coffee Roasters. Everything is fair trade in terms of the sourcing of their beans. We had a chance to look at the production facility and smell the amazing aroma. We’re really happy to partner with them; they’re a smaller house, but that’s what we’re trying to do: Figure out how we can try and make as many local connections as possible.

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