25 Aug Dickie Wells, the creator of Chicken & Waffles
Gracing so many brunch menus today is the iconic chicken and waffle. Such a simple yet impactful meal; a juicy hot piece of fried chicken on top of a buttery waffle drizzled with warm syrup. The chicken and waffles we know today used to be a hot commodity back in the 1930s, just like the creator, Dickie Wells.
Richard “Dickie” Wells, born in 1908, was a self-taught tap dancer in Harlem, NY. As part of the tap dance trio, Wells, Mordecai, and Taylor, Wells rose to fame at the famous Cotton Club. While many black men at the time had an income of less than $40 per week, Wells was making S500 a week at the Cotton Club. To put that into context, that is between $7000 to $8000 in 2022 per week. His tap-dancing skills were sensational, but he was also known as the “Harlem Playboy.”
With fair skin, slick hair, and dreamy bedroom eyes, Wells, often mistaken for being Cuban, swooned prominent women from all over the country. Wells had women like Joan Crawford, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, and Tallulah Bankhead traveling just to spend an evening with him. Wells made so much from being a gigolo that he bought his mother a brownstone in the elite Strivers Row, where he lived in the basement apartment. As he grew his fortune as a gigolo, his ambitions also grew.
However, Wells knew there was more to life than being a tap-dancing gigolo in Harlem, so he set out to open a supper club. Since Wells had an outstanding reputation with very wealthy women, one of his admirers footed the start-up cost for his club, “Dickie Wells.” Wells’ club became a well-known after-hours spot that would cater mainly to those leaving the Cotton Club and Connie’s Inn. The club was in front of the famous “Tree of Hope” and Lincoln Theater. It brought famous actors like Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, and royalty like The Duke of Windsor. With all the famous people coming to the club, the entertainment had to be the best. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and Ethel Waters are just a few who took the stage at Wells’ club. Wells left no stone unturned when it came to his club, especially when it came to the menu.
Since club goes were too late for dinner and too early for breakfast, Wells decided to serve them both, and this is where the famous Chicken and Waffles dish was born. Wells served his Chicken and Waffles with coffee or a shot of bourbon, turning this accommodating dish into one of the most famous dishes in Harlem during the 1930s. When Ethel Waters opened up her restaurant, it included Chicken and Waffles. It was also served at J.T Wells, with no relations to Dickie Wells, establishment known as the Well’s Supper Club in 1938. One of the most famous Chicken and Waffle establishments is Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, whose owner, Herb Hudson, brought Chicken and Waffles to Los Angeles from his birthplace of Harlem.
Wells, who passed away in 1939 at 41, will forever leave a mark on the black culinary scene with his Chicken and Waffles. Many Black restaurants worldwide have Chicken and Waffles on their menu, like The Breakfast Klub in Houston, Booker’s Restaurant and Bar in Philly, Lucky’s Chicken N’ Waffles in Toronto, or even vegan chicken and waffles at NuVegan in the DMV area. Dickie Well’s contribution to Chicken and Waffles was a game changer in his era, and with the many versions of Chicken and Waffles, it’s still a game changer today.