Lois the Pie Queen. Photo courtesy of Chris Davis

The ClassicsOakland

Passing It Down: On Lois the Pie Queen and Soul Food Generations


Lois the Pie Queen just might be the oldest Black-owned restaurant in California.

These days, it’s run by Lois’ son, Chris Davis. On a recent afternoon, we sat together in the restaurant, with bookkeeping paperwork scattered on a vinyl-draped dining room table. We spoke extensively about his recollections of the business he grew up in, as well as the state of soul food in the Bay Area.

Chris turns 75 in January, and he appreciates social media and takeaway as the future, but feels a bit out of the loop. He doesn’t want to exert the energy to foray into this new frontier: “This restaurant likely killed my mother, I want to walk away.”

As such, he plans on passing the torch to his son, Corey, and he beams with pride as he talks about him. During our conversation, he continuously throws light on the daily stressors and rigor of running a restaurant, voicing them leading up to and during our meeting. I sympathize, knowingly, as a chef — but 71 years running is something for which I have no context. But sitting in this restaurant, looking at this as the definition of an institution and a family business, I see how it has outlived all of its founders, and many of the guests and visitors, along the way.

It clearly weighs heavy on him, to persevere and survive, to continue the legacy.

The “Queen” Lois Davis and her husband, Roland, opened it in 1951 in Berkeley at Ashby and Sacramento. The restaurant changed locations a few times, albeit staying in the same general neighborhood; it has been in its current location on 60th and Adeline in Oakland for 48 years and counting.

Lois got her start cooking for her father’s congregation at  Ephesian Church of God and Christ in the 1940s. During this time, she and her sister Bernice teamed up to run a successful catering business for the Oakland shipyard, preparing up to 10,000 sandwiches a day for Black dockworkers.

This hustle and following success spun into the restaurant that still stands today, seven decades years later. When you walk in you see the walls jammed with photos of influential Black Americans of the past decades. I won’t go line by line, but I will mention that Kamala Harris always had a reserved table and there’s a breakfast named after Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson. Two pork chops, two eggs, hash browns or grits and a beverage for homerun-generating calories. It’s a hearty and solid choice.

Chris more or less defaulted into the restaurant business; he remembers starting work in the restaurant around 9, and finding ways to hide in nearby businesses (an adjacent jeweler in particular) to avoid the constant and demanding grind of the bustling eatery. He recalls his mom coming home late at night, exhausted from the restaurant’s demands. Roland was particularly known for his breakfast cookery, which the restaurant specializes in to this day. Roland and Lois divorced in 1961, but continued working together. Chris mentions how unique of an arrangement this was, particularly at the time.

The wall of notable visitors on the wall behind the counter is congested. You can spend a whole, leisurely breakfast surveying it and finding people who have shaped culture, music, art, politics, and sport over the past 30 years.

As Chris became a young man, he distanced himself from the restaurant trade, earning his Master’s and teaching credentials, becoming an educator. His sister, Tramaine Hawkins, became a well-known gospel singer. Lois, a God-fearing woman, funded the recording of the now famous Gospel album “Oh Happy Day” for Tramaine’s brother-in-law, the gospel legend Edwin Hawkins.

Thanks to its homestyle cooking and warm atmosphere, the restaurant steadily grew in popularity in the 70s and 80s.  It was a necessary stop for Black celebrities during a Bay Area leg of tours, sports seasons, and campaigns. The restaurant grew in popularity as time went by.

In the early 1990s, Lois was diagnosed with cancer.  She took her final year to spend time with family and traveling before she was too sick to do so. In 1993, she passed away, only 63 years old.

Chris resolutely conveyed his family’s shock and disbelief during that time.  He also underscored that his mom didn’t get to spend much time outside of the restaurant. Chris was suddenly passed the torch, as his sister’s gospel career made her unavailable. The legacy of this restaurant was now thrust into his hands.

Shortly after Lois’ death, the now-defunct Oakland Tribune, wrote that the restaurant was “out” of a list of restaurants worth a visit, because its namesake had died. Chris, after canceling his subscription, used it as motivation, kickstarting the motivation to grow the restaurant’s reach and popularity. He did just that.

Year in and year out, the restaurant found success and importance, staying constant as everything around changed.

More recently, Lois the Pie Queen became important to me.

The simple and homestyle breakfast reminds me of my grandmother, Costella; Thick, white grits, with a pat of butter on top, in need of an eager dash or two of salt in the same way that I remember her making them. Sizzled eggs with thinly battered but perfectly fried chicken. It’s a dish that finally solved the age-old question — the chicken goes first, at least for me. What a way to start the day. The pies, in memory of Her Royal Pie-ness, are vintage in feel, honest, and delicious. It plainly just doesn’t feel like restaurant food.  It isn’t plated, fussed over, contrived – it’s completely honest. It’s a place for uninterrupted nostalgia.

The restaurant wears some years on its sleeve: The cantilevered sign on the outside bears patches of rust, the coffee mugs and plates have an honest patina from years of service, and a CD stereo plays a compilation disc with songs decades from their release. There are no noticeable updates to the breakfast menu.  I’m certain it’s been the same since my first visit a decade ago, though the previous “Cash Only” sign has recently conceded Venmo as an option.

The wall of notable visitors on the wall behind the counter is congested. You can spend a whole, leisurely breakfast surveying it and finding people who have shaped culture, music, art, politics, and sport over the past 30 years.

Chris is humble and honest; both he and his mother are an absolute inspiration. Generation three has the benefit of an illuminated path.

Chris and I sat and talked for some time. He was animated and disarmingly honest about every topic we encountered. He’s showing a bit of his age now — the dreadlocks shown in most of those celebrity photos on the wall are long gone. But his eyes lit up youthfully as we talked about food and restaurants.

I explained my plans for Burdell, my soul food restaurant named after my grandmother. He asks about the dishes I’d serve and how I’d promote and package the restaurant.  He gave me a bit of his perspective and advice. I learned a lot.

We talked about other soul food restaurants here in Oakland, and I was surprised that he knows the key players well, and helped many when they opened. I’m honored to now consider him a friend. I can’t wait to welcome him to Burdell.

I am excited for his son, Corey, to be the third generation at the helm of Lois the Pie Queen.  How often does this happen in our fast-paced society?

Continuity, passed onto the next generation. Chris is humble and honest; both he and his mother are an absolute inspiration. Generation three has the benefit of an illuminated path.

Man, what a legacy to continue. Long live the Queen.

Geoff Davis is a Bay Area chef who looks forward to opening Burdell in the near future. Follow him on Instagram at @geonate88.