I’ve worked here since I was around eight years old. I came down one day to ask my grandfather to buy a toy or something like that, and he gave me an apron and told me that I’d work from this day forward.”
So says William Lemon, grandson of James Lemon, one of the original owners of Lem’s BBQ. Along with a blast of the smoky smell of the restaurant’s dual hickory smokers, William is one of the first things to greet a visitor to this storied barbecue joint.
People pack the interior of the restaurant at all hours of the day, starting immediately when it opens at 1pm. During the lunch hour, smoke fills the air inside the restaurant, which is largely free of decoration. The most noticeable thing in the restaurant is the enormous meat smoker, which stays full of slab upon slab of meat throughout the day. Customers line up outside the door as employees chop rib tips, slice hot links, and take order after order.
The flood of customers isn’t new, either: it’s the reputation and history that keep people coming back. Founded in 1954 by brothers Bruce and Miles Lemon, Lem’s is the oldest operational barbecue shop in Chicago. James Lemon opened the current location at 75th Street and Prairie Avenue, on what in 1968 William called the “new black Wall Street,” after being introduced to the barbecue business by his brothers. The restaurant’s original location on 59th and State Street closed in the 1980s after three decades of business.
“My grandfather came down here mid-thirties,” said William. “Times was rough in the South, so they came up here as [young men] with a third grade education and tried to make something out of [their lives]. And most of our customers are people who’ve been here generation through generation. Their parents brought them here, their parents’ parents brought them here.”
“This was a business that started as just two brothers trying to provide for themselves during hard times,” he said. “You know most African-Americans who came up here from the South, they came up here to live a better life and I don’t think they envisioned sixty years later that it would still be going.”
Lem’s storied history is evident not only in the constant lines out the door of the restaurant, but also in the taste of the food itself—in every rib tip, hot link, and drop of mild sauce soaked in white bread. When the brothers who founded Lem’s came to Chicago from Mississippi, they brought Mississippi barbecue with them.
“The sauces are a recipe of my great-grandma, and the rubs and spices are a recipe from my uncle,” said William. The rib tips, slathered in this sauce and chopped off the end of a spare rib, are cheaper than the meat from the slab, but the tips at Lem’s are a specialty—as one customer put it, they’re “the best in the fuckin’ world.” Each piece is tender, smoky, and messy, with gobs of fat throughout. Steak fries form a bed underneath the tips in a sea of mild sauce (applied by dipping a thick brush in a steaming tub of sauce and brushing the tips, links and fries) whose tangy, vinegary taste forms a sharp contrast to the thicker taste of Harold’s and Uncle Joe’s.
It’s the constancy and consistency of this recipe that’s earned Lem’s a permanent reputation in the Chatham community and beyond. Since the earliest days, says William, the crowds have never slowed down, and they show no signs of doing so.
“The business has stayed the same or gotten better over the years,” says William. “Food is always going to be food. When you’ve got a good product, it doesn’t matter how the community changes, people are still going to come and get good food. The restaurant business goes up and down, but if you’ve got good quality, this tends to stay the same.”
But even though the appeal of the restaurant has remained steady through the years, William noted that Lem’s may soon enter a new era.
“I definitely see the restaurant growing, and our goal for 2015 it to try to turn it into a franchise and open a few more locations,” he said. “My grandfather was old-fashioned so he kept things the same, but my Aunty is in charge now and she’s willing to let things grow and do new things.”
Even if the structure of the business changes, William says that Lem’s place in the community, and in the Lemon family, definitely won’t.
“Some aspects might change, but I don’t think this store will, I think this store will stay the same,” he said. “Hopefully, thirty to forty years from now it will still be going and I can see my grandson or granddaughter run the business. That’s my only vision right now. I’m third generation, and now I see the importance of it and what they labored for and I want to keep it going myself.”
Lem’s Bar-B-Q, 311 E. 75th Street. Monday,Wednesday, Thursday, & Sunday, 1pm-1am; Friday & Saturday, 1pm-3am.