When Michael Cherry takes a break from frying chicken wings and flipping burgers at Luversia’s, he and his brother Anthony’s new soul food restaurant, he likes to walk along 79th Street—the commercial heart of Chatham—and look into the windows of hair salons, clothing stores, food markets, and diners. These days Chathamites never take anything for granted. Since the recession, half-century old neighborhood staples like Army & Lou’s, a soul food diner, are suddenly hitting financial bottom, and new businesses like Garrett Popcorn and Flecks Coffee are moving into boarded-up buildings.
Geographically, Chatham is a jagged little piece of the South Side that runs between 79th and 95th Streets, bordered by the Illinois Central Railroad to the east and the Dan Ryan to the west. Since the turn of the century the neighborhood has been a stronghold for the South Side’s upwardly mobile middle class due to its well-regarded schools, strict property codes, and community organization. Early in the century, Italian stonemasons and Hungarian and Irish railway workers called Chatham home. Like many other South Side neighborhoods, Chatham experienced a period of white flight in the fifties, when the neighborhood transitioned from being ninety-nine percent white to ninety-nine percent black, and Chatham soon became home to some of the most successful black businesses in the country. Today, however, the chairs at Bull’s Eye Barbershop are often empty, as are owner “Mother” Wade’s booths at Captain’s Hard Time Diner.
In efforts to keep Chatham a middle-class neighborhood, its residents have long espoused a strict set of values. There are unspoken rules: don’t loiter on 79th Street; don’t wash your car in the front driveway; keep your lawn clean. For decades this is what has set Chatham apart from surrounding neighborhoods facing high rates of crime and poverty. But 2013 is a period of flux—financial hardship and a wave of younger residents moving in from outside neighborhoods are changing the face of retail on 79th Street, as well as Chatham’s quiet and tidy bungalow-lined residential streets. The good news is that Chatham remains full of people like Michael Cherry, who look after the neighborhood, the businesses, the schools, the houses, the children—tracking change in prosperous and difficult times.
BEST SOUL FOOD RENAISSANCE: Luversia’s Soul Food Diner
For seventy-one good years, Izola’s Restaurant on 79th Street provided a hub for African-American politicians, artists, and community organizers on the South Side. Harold Washington announced that he was running for mayor over one of Izola’s hearty southern-style dishes. Muhammad Ali proposed to his future wife in one of the dining booths. But at the height of the recent recession, Izola White—like many other Chatham business owners—closed the restaurant’s doors, and lifelong customers lamented the end of an era. This year brothers Anthony and Michael Cherry, nephews of the legendary Izola, reopened the establishment under the name Luversia’s. Hot plates of smothered turkey chops, baked macaroni and cheese, sweet yams, and battered chicken are back on the storied tables, and old-timers have made their homecoming. The first Sunday of every month promises good gospel and an $18 all-you-can-eat buffet. A weathered relic of the “Izola days” still hangs on the wall. Summing things up appropriately in essence if not in name, it reads: “If your wife is a bum cook, don’t get an attitude. Eat at Izola’s.” Luversia’s Soul Food Diner, 522 E. 79th St. Monday-Thursday, 8am-8pm; Friday, 8am-11pm; Saturday, noon-11pm; Sunday, noon-7pm. (773)994-3123. facebook.com/LuversiasSoulFoodRestaurant (Lauren Gurley)
BEST TWENTY-FOUR-HOUR SUGAR FIX: Dat Donut
South Siders, North Siders, West Siders, and even out-of-towners are making the pilgrimage to 83rd and Cottage Grove for Darryl Townson’s warm and flakey handmade donuts. Sandwiched between a barbecue joint and ice-cream/hot-dog stand, Dat Donut lives behind a small bulletproof window and a modestly sized pastry display case. But don’t be fooled: the rotating forty-eight flavors of donut—including buttermilk cake, chocolate cake, strawberry jelly, coconut, apple fritter, and the notorious glazed—are in no way meager in size or substance. Dat Donut bakers are at it twenty-four hours a day and six days a week, ensuring that there is always a fresh hunk of sweet and buttery perfection awaiting a hungry customer. Bonus points (and pounds) for trying the “Big Dat,” a donut the size of a birthday cake. Dat Donut, 8249 S. Cottage Grove Ave. Monday, 4am-Saturday, 10pm. (773)723-1002. (Lauren Gurley)
BEST OF WEST AFRICA: Yassa African Restaurant
Having a meal at Yassa may be the closest you can come in flavor and atmosphere to Senegal in the States. Although this nine-year-old family-run restaurant is no longer Chatham’s best-kept secret, the grilled tilapia, crispy fataya salmon patties, and chicken and lamb curries are as delicious as ever. Step into Yassa for lunch or dinner and you’ll be greeted with a sea of colorful fabrics and prints, the happy rhythms of Senegalese talking drums, little bottles of hand-sanitizer at your table, and an efficient wait staff that is also eager to make friends. If you chat your waiter up, they may just sit down at your table and talk to you about the menu and life on two continents. Be prepared for miniature mountains of spicy caramelized onions and the aromatic rice that comes with most entrees. Yassa African Restaurant, 716 E. 79th St. Sunday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-11pm. (773)488-5599. yassaafricanrestaurant.com (Lauren Gurley)
BEST BAG OF SHRIMP: Haire’s Gulf Shrimp
Plucking a shrimp from a Haire’s “Bomb Bag” feels like a lot of other good bad decisions. The warm paper bag and rising steam say that the breaded spiral is too hot to eat, but the smell wafting up is irresistible. Don’t even try: it’s too late. Grease coats your fingers and the just-barely-peppered breading is glistening, too sturdy to fall apart. The straight-from-the-fryer heat prompts a string of accidental vowels as your tongue plays hot potato. The second one will scald less, as bulging white meat yields under teeth with a burst of flavor that fills every part of the mouth. There’s nothing in the bag but a dozen or so shrimp, a fork and napkin, and two sauces—hot and cocktail. Either lends a perfect kick. The bag comes out five minutes after ordering, battered and fried and drained in the small kitchen behind the bulletproof order window. A few dollars more buys some fries, spaghetti or slaw, but with shrimp this good, a side just takes up space. The end of the bag comes too soon, but the taste of peppery crustacean lingers with the grease on your lips. Damn. Haire’s Gulf Shrimp, 8112 S. Vincennes Ave. Monday, 11am-8pm; Tuesday, 11am-9pm; Wednesday-Saturday, 11am-11pm; Sunday, 11am-10pm. Take-out. Cash only. (773)783-1818. (Hannah Nyhart)
BEST PUBLIC HANGOUT: 80th Street and Ellis Avenue
80th Street and Ellis Avenue—a quiet crossroads lined with brick apartment buildings and big leafy trees—is a popular hangout on evenings for working Chathamites of all backgrounds. From here the city feels a hundred miles away. Some say it’s the place where people gather to unwind and catch up with friends, now that many of the popular bars and restaurants that have shut down. Others say it’s a meeting grounds for twentysomethings. One young woman was quick to call it her favorite spot in Chatham. “This is the ghetto,” she said. “Some people are trying to get out of here. Others are just trying to make ends meet. But one thing that everyone like to do is come here and hang out.” (Lauren Gurley)