From the 1930s to the early 1970s, the strip of clubs along East Evesham Road in Lawnside, NJ was a weekend party mecca, featuring some of the greatest Black entertainers the area has ever seen. Memorable music and dancing was the nightly scene in an area now seen as nothing more than a stretch of road to get from Point A to Point B, with shopping centers, schools, and train stations in between. But Mame and Mark Wilson are bringing excitement back to an area that once attracted entertainers who drew busloads of tourists from beyond the Tri-State area.
After two years of planning and building, husband-and-wife business partners Mame and Mark Wilson opened Wilson’s Restaurant & Live Music Lounge — a stunning new 7,800 square-foot, 350-seat restaurant and live music and entertainment venue located at 709 South Warwick Road in Hi-Nella, a town just minutes down the road from Lawnside — New Jersey’s oldest incorporated African-American township.
The new business, which has been welcoming in big-name acts and entertainers since opening this past December, is something the area has been missing — a feature the area once had with the likes of Dreamland, the Cotton Club, Wilcox’s Café, the Whippoorwill Club, and Loretta’s Hi-Hat — all destinations where African-Americans would dress up, enjoy fine dining, and dance and sing the night away as A-list musicians performed nearly every night.
“When we started learning about this area, we discovered a rich history of African-Americans and of Black musicians and entertainers. We discovered a neighborhood which once meant so much to the Black music world,” said Mame. “We decided to bring that energy back to this area. We want to bring this type of nightlife back to a community that not only enjoyed it for decades but helped to ignite a whole world of excitement and entertainment. Prior to all of those places closing, the nightlife arguably overshadowed Philadelphia’s music scene for decades.”
As the 21st Century opened, segregation was still the law of the land, and African-Americans had few choices when it came to public entertainment venues. A small group of Lawnside entrepreneurs ultimately saw a business opportunity, and in the 1930s, they commercialized the dusty, unpaved strip of land along Evesham Road. Eventually, as segregation gave way to the Civil Rights Movement and the Jim Crow “whites-only” laws, local entertainment meccas like Dreamland – where it’s said Nat King Cole performed – began to suffer greatly. The decline started in the 1960s, and by the summer of 1999, Evesham Road’s last barbeque joint closed its doors for good.
“We’re operating in an environment which was thriving for the Black community during a substantial portion of the twentieth century,” said Wilson. “The historical relevance of the area is not lost on us, and while it took a very dark and disheartening turn decades ago, we are hoping we can make a difference and bring back at least a small part of what this stretch of New Jersey was about during its heyday. We have high hopes for our future in Hi-Nella, and so far we’re off to a fantastic start, as we’ve been selling out most weekends since launching in early December.”
The restaurant and entertainment venue serves New Orleans-influenced, southern cuisine, with dishes including Crab Cake Egg Rolls; Oxtail Grilled Cheese; Old Bay Wings; ½ Fried Chicken; Grilled Lamb Chops; Lobster Gumbo; and much more from Executive Chef Elijah Milligan. Small Plates, which also include fresh oysters and chilled jumbo shrimp, range in price from $15-$19, while Larger Plates are offered for $24-$42. Milligan, who has experience working on both coasts at revered standouts Le Bec-Fin and Vernick in Philadelphia, and Angele in the Napa Valley, recently returned to the region after a four-year stint in California.
The bar features locally-produced craft beers and spirits as well as an extraordinary collection of bourbons and wines from all over the world. Most notably, Wilson’s is one of only three establishments in New Jersey that possesses a license to serve drinks until 5 a.m.
Wilson’s Live is open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., Fridays and Saturdays from 6 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., and on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sundays will also feature a jazz brunch and dancing in the evening.
Marilyn is a freelance writer covering the food and drink scene of South Jersey. You can find more of her writing on Philly Grub and NewsBreak.