Griot Cafe Puts an Afro-Caribbean Spin on Brunch Classics

Located in the Jersey City Heights neighborhood, the modern café puts a flavorful twist on savory pastries, beignets, chicken and waffles and more—and in the process, fosters a sense of community.

Griot sandwich. Photo courtesy of Griot Cafe

Griot Cafe has all the markers of a modern, hip brunch spot: There’s cold brew coffee on tap, fresh-pressed juices and avocado toast. But look a little closer and you’ll notice the Afro-Caribbean influences, from the Kenyan beignets and Haitian savory turnovers lining the pastry case to the liberal sprinkle of Creole seasoning on everything from the waffles to the eggs.

The first foray into the food business for co-owners John Gichuru, Victor Joseph and Malick Drame, these elements are a reflection of their heritages—Gichuru hails from Kenya, Joseph from Haiti and Drame from Senegal—and their desire to create a community hangout where “people come in as strangers and walk out as friends,” Gichuru says. The trio, all 35, met while working in finance but wanted a change, and decided to open a cafe that would bring “a little bit of home to the States.”

The name Griot has dual significance, too. In West Africa, a griot is a storyteller responsible for passing down traditions through story and song; In Haiti, it’s a beloved pork dish. For the Griot owners, “it means telling our story through food,” says Gichuru, who runs the front of the house.

Since opening a year ago, he says, this vision has drawn a diverse crowd of the students and young professionals moving to the Jersey City Heights neighborhood, as well as its longtime residents (Drame and Joseph have both lived in the Heights for a number of years, while Gichuru is planning a move from Queens).

Beignets. Photo courtesy of Griot Cafe

During a recent Sunday brunch rush, the cafe’s 15 or so seats were filled to capacity (just one reason Gichuru is looking forward to opening back patio seating for the summer season; another is to host community events such as poetry readings). Diners who couldn’t wait for a stool in the shop’s front nook or a table by the communal bookshelf took their Chameleon cold brew coffees, smoothies and sweets to go, while a diverse crowd inside lingered patiently for their orders.

Most tables had at least one of the Kenyan beignets to share, a favorite of Gichuru’s from his childhood. Smaller and less sweet and dense than a New Orleans version of the treat ($1.60), Gichuru says they’re just as popular as the shop’s turnos, flaky, stuffed savory pastries from Haiti. Both are made in-house, and Griot’s vegan and vegetarian spin on the traditionally meat- or seafood-filled patties ($2.58) have been a hit.

Creole chicken and waffles. Photo courtesy of Griot Cafe

Heartier options include the chicken and waffles, two wings heavy on the Creole house seasoning and served with a side of mango ($12.99) and the Griot sandwich, an open-face creation with avocado, caramelized onions and tangy slaw on crispy plantain patties ($6.99).

Gichuru is looking to expand the café’s admittedly limited menu. He and Joseph, who runs the kitchen, are working on dishes with Senegalese and South African twists and hearing from diners, both those familiar with Afro-Caribbean dishes and flavors, and those not as much.

“One of the exciting parts of this whole journey,” Gichuru says, “is serving and hearing from folks from all over and getting their feedback.”

Griot Cafe, 434 Central Avenue, Jersey City; 201-420-9444. Open 7 am–7 pm Mon-Fri; 8 am–7 pm Sat-Sun.

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