Barbara “B.” Smith, the model-turned-restaurateur who shoved open doors that were often stuck shut for persons of her race and gender, died Saturday after a long affliction with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. She was 70 years old.
The last of Smith’s three restaurants, all named B. Smith’s, closed in 2015, following her diagnosis of dementia. The former magazine cover subject—one of the first African American women to appear on the cover of Mademoiselle—went public with the news of her illness, aiming to raise awareness of the disease and increase research funding.
Even without her restaurants, Smith remained a popular figure. She had drawn a large following with best-selling cookbooks, a syndicated TV show, a namesake fashion magazine and home product lines to which she lent her name, including furniture. She was nicknamed “the black Martha Stewart,” a tag she disliked because she found it patronizing. She preferred to call herself a cross between Stewart and Oprah Winfrey.
Though not a trained cook, the daughter of a Pennsylvania steelworker added topspin to the upheaval in American fine dining during the 1980s. At the time, much of the white-tablecloth sector emulated the stuffy restaurants of France and other parts of Europe, with classic continental fare prepared as it had been since Escoffier’s day. A group of young chefs and restaurateurs democratized the scene in the United States by featuring regional specialties in a more casual atmosphere. Few were African-American.
Smith found herself in the middle of that sea change as a fast-rising manager in the 1980s at America, Ark Restaurants’ disruptive restaurant in New York City. Impressed with the young woman’s style and smarts, Ark principal Michael Weinstein agreed to fund the launch of Smith’s own restaurant, the original B. Smith’s, located in a then-off area of the city, west of Times Square.
The restaurant became an immediate hot spot, in part because it provided a haven for young African-American professionals. The menu was sometimes described as stylish soul food and other times as new American fare with a Southern influence, even though Smith grew up near Pittsburgh.
At the time, the industry included few female restaurateurs and operators of color. Smith’s very prominence ran contrary to the status quo.
She and Ark subsequently opened B. Smith’s outlets in Union Station, the Beaux Arts landmark in Washington, D.C., and the Long Island town of East Hampton, N.Y., a summertime playground for New York City’s fashionistas. Smith eventually had a falling out with Ark, and bought out the company’s interest in her operations.
Her struggles with Alzheimer’s often spilled into public view. In 2014, for instance, she disappeared from her summer home in East Hampton. She was spotted on a jitney heading into Manhattan and ended up in a New York City cafe, where she was recognized by the proprietor.
Two years ago, her husband, TV producer Dan Gasby, ignited a controversy when he disclosed that he was seeing another woman because of the severity of his wife’s disease.
Smith died at home Saturday. She is survived by Gasby, a stepdaughter and two brothers.