‘Come and Eat’ – creole patois for Veni Mangé is a name suggested by famous media and cultural icon Holly Betaudier in his living years for the popular restaurant that now sits at the corner of Ariapita Avenue and Luis Street, Woodbrook. As returning nationals besotted by their country, Allyson Hennessey and Rosemary Hezekiah wanted to create a truly West Indian ambiance with food and decor to help showcase some of what we have to offer as a country. Instead of emulating North American and European cuisine, they blended the influence of their experiences – Allyson being a Le Cordon Bleu trained chef.
There was a certain ring to the name and they were able to bring it to life along with their cooks who stayed with the restaurant since its inception. Their passion and love for cooking and people saw them through three decades. They opened their doors at the restaurant’s first location in St. James on December 1st 1980 at a time when few food options for local food existed, compared to the proliferation of eating establishments today, Hezekiah said the secret to being in business this long was doing what you love and doing it to the best of your ability.
“You must be the face of your business and be present when/if things go wrong. Staying current, vigilant, yet remaining true to yourself/brand and maintaining your standards.”
I had the pleasure of receiving a gift certificate for dinner at Veni Mangé for being a focus group participant as a member of a business group, so I took the opportunity to call up the restaurant to offer to write a business feature. It just so happened they were celebrating 35 years of being in business that very December (2015)!! So there I was – Friday night, Christmastime, ready to eat and write (before I scooted off to another assignment at Hilton with another friend)! Work life balance at its best doing two of the things I love the most. It was awesome from the moment I walked in, with something extra special in the air you could feel.
A friend/business advisor met me there and we were both taken aback by the décor as we made it up the stairs and was greeted at the door by another familiar sister, Sheelaugh. It was Carnival, Christmas, Europe. Just a festive vibe that screamed, “Welcome home, Come & Eat.” We looked up almost at the same time and there to the left was a life-size photo of Allyson Hennessey on the wall who sadly passed away in 2011. Wow. This may sound a bit strange, but it’s as though she was there in spirit keeping watch over the customers, reminding them that she’s still enjoying the festivity, though not physically present in this Earthly realm.
As I sat at the bar, I noticed Rosemary’s interaction with each guest. Her passion was evident and I took a mental note. She later told me what I could already sense from the atmosphere,
“I am grateful and fortunate to have friends and family that supported me through the years and are avid food aficionados who keep me on my toes. It is important to listen, weigh feedback and heed constructive criticism.
Our reward is when foreigners walk into the restaurant and say that they feel as though they are ‘IN THE CARIBBEAN’ and want to experience the cuisine. The secret for me, as it was when Allyson was alive, is good local cuisine (cooked with a ‘sweet hand’) in a warm typical Caribbean setting, friendly personal service that make our guests feel at home and of course enjoying what we do!”
She pauses and scans the room to check on her guests and continues, “We have so much to offer as a country, if only we open our eyes and appreciate the beauty of our islands and the talent surrounding us.”
I took the opportunity to walk around and take some photos of the décor (pictured here) as she took our order and we awaited our appetizers. I spoke briefly to a visitor from New Jersey just to ensure it was okay if his picture found its way into the local press. He was onto his second appetizer and said he walked the entire avenue strip and was happy to find a Caribbean restaurant open for dinner.
I got a seat close to the window, so I could see the buzz of the avenue downstairs but upstairs I felt as though the world could disappear and I’d be oblivious – lost in my little world with good food, good conversation and the mellow sound of local Christmas music in the background. I was that engrossed in the meal and the relaxed feeling the vivid colours and paintings created!
I learnt later from the pictures on the wall that the likes of Rolling Stones lead singer and rocker Mick Jagger, the guys from reggae band Steel Pulse, Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, national cricketer Brian Lara, members of the strike squad (footballers) – Russell Latapy, Dwight Yorke and mas veteran Peter Minshall all graced the halls to lunch and dine at Veni Mange with Allyson and Rosemary – some becoming repeat customers and friends.
How about that!
My spicy and flavourful chip chip (seafood) appetizers were out of this world amazing, along with the tender and succulent stewed ox-tail main course, mellow dumplings, red beans, ochro and rice, veggies and pumpkin fritters. What more can you ask for? Imagine what the annual Christmas menu was like! I don’t even think Santa could have topped that meal 🙂
I glanced over to my right and our New Jersey visitor was on to his second entrée. I’d say it was a consensus. As we said our goodbyes, there were more people coming in and just merriment at the bar. I wish I could have stayed, but off to work I went! Allyson’s photo was now facing us and was it weird that I thought her to be the opposite of the Mona Lisa? With that oh-so-familiar perpetual warm smile she gifted us for years on TV’s Community Dateline.