Felicia Wilson, owner of Amina, an imaginative new Southern spot on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, always dreamt of running a restaurant. She just thought it would be after she retired in another 20 years.
Wilson’s plate was full: She was raising young children in addition to operating the childcare centers she owns. She surprised herself earlier this year when she snapped up a liquor license—because they can be difficult to get in Philadelphia, she was spurred into action as soon as she learned one was available. She then scouted out restaurant space. “Now I basically have three full-time jobs,” she says.
Though Amina only opened its doors this spring, it already feels like a longtime Old City resident. It’s a natural addition to a historic block that’s renowned for its restaurants, and Wilson says Amina provides something that the restaurant scene here was missing.
“You could always find Southern food, or soul food, around the city, but we’ve taken it up a notch. We bring elevated Southern cuisine, and that’s something we haven’t had until now,” she says.
To accomplish this, Wilson teamed up with a fellow advocate for Southern and African cuisines: Chef Darryl Harmon, formerly of Philadelphia’s Water Works and the Lure Group restaurants in New York City. Though the original plan was for Harmon to be a temporary consultant, a friendship between Wilson and Harmon led to a more permanent executive chef role for him at Amina.
The restaurant shares a name with Wilson’s daughter—and a historic warrior-queen from Nigeria that inspires her. “The restaurant’s theme is girls rule the world,” she says.
Amina’s menu combines Southern classics, such as mac and cheese, with various spices used in African cuisines, including fenugreek, bird’s eye chile, and ground coriander. Many dishes, such as the candied yam puree topped with toasted marshmallows and bear-shaped graham crackers, showcase Harmon’s fine-dining sensibilities and creative whimsy.
Other standout examples of African-influenced Southern fare include the Nigerian hot chicken sandwich, a twist on the Nashville classic. In Harmon’s version, Nigerian spices and a layer of peanut butter give the sandwich a creaminess that softens the heat. The peri-peri sticky wings are served with “burnt end baby veggies” or vegetables that are dehydrated to a crisp, meant to evoke the flavor and texture of barbecue. The crab cake dish is served with Ol’ Fuskie crab fried rice, a traditional Gullah recipe studded with bacon, green bell peppers, and celery.
But the most popular item, according to Wilson, is the cheesesteak beignet, a savory twist on New Orlean’s famous powdered-sugar-dusted doughnut. At Amina, the fried dough is stuffed with a beef filling and sprinkled with cheese powder. “We just wanted to have a touch of Philly and a touch of New Orleans,” says Wilson.
Another crowd pleaser is the down home gumbo, made with chicken sausage instead of the usual pork. Many tables choose a classic Southern peach cobbler to close out their meal, according to Wilson.
The cocktail selection is the heart of Amina’s beverage program. Wilson worked with New York-based beverage consultant Chris Kearns to create food-friendly cocktails that offer something out of the ordinary.
Amina’s Crown is the single most-ordered item at the restaurant, says Wilson. It’s a variation on a margarita, with two types of tequila in a passionfruit base. “It’s smooth. You really don’t taste the alcohol until you try to stand up,” Wilson says. A sparkling combo of raspberry vodka and prosecco is another top choice, especially for those in a celebratory mood.
The restaurant has a full bar, and a good selection of beer, including some craft brews and I.P.A.s, plus red, white, rosé, and sparkling wines.
The black, white, and gold interior was inspired by the restaurant’s aforementioned royal namesake. The murals, by local graphic designer and artist Gregory Goodwin, depict women warriors rendered in black and white.
Throughout the 65-seat dining room, there are many objects that, for Wilson, represent Africa, including artifacts, animal prints, and textiles. Layered textures lend a luxurious vibe: Tasseled light fixtures and glowing chandeliers hang from a pressed-tin ceiling. It’s a striking, elegant, and cozy place to linger over a meal.
Amina is open from 4 pm to 10 pm on Tuesday and Wednesday, 4 pm to 11 pm on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and 4 pm to 9 pm on Sunday. Weekend brunch will start later this summer.