February — which it is worth noting, is the shortest month of the year — is Black History Month in America, and traditionally when you’ll see Black-owned restaurant roundups like this one (written by a white food journalist, no less). But you’d be a fool to give short shrift to any of these terrific places, and they deserve your time, attention, and dollars every month of the year. So, check them out this month while they are top of mind, but please continue to patronize these spots in March, April, May… you get it, right? And tell your friends. These are all locally owned Black businesses, and like all other local spots, are feeling the pandemic pinch. Please note that this is far from an exhaustive list, but hopefully representative of the depth and breadth of excellent Black cuisine in the Chicago area.
2748 N Lincoln Ave and 2537 S Wabash, Chicago
It’s all about breakfast and brunch at these sunny cafés, one in the South Loop and one in the DePaul neighborhood. Come for the French Toast flight, and stay for the Cluck-n-Gaufre, a sweet potato waffle stuffed with nubbins of fried chicken, and topped with a buttermilk-brined, herb-fried chicken breast topped with nutmeg-scented hot sauce.
328 E 75th St and 600 E Grand Ave (Navy Pier), Chicago
The South Side mother ship of this James Beard Award-nominated Southern-style bakery was founded by the ebullient Stephanie Hart, queen of the Caramel Cake and so much more. Cupcakes and slices (think Red Velvet, German Chocolate, Pineapple Coconut, the Obama, Strawberry, and of course Caramel!) can be ordered for immediate pickup, while whole cakes need 48-hour advanced notice. Service at Navy Pier is walk-up only.
3947 S King Dr, Chicago and 543 Madison St, Oak Park
The menus are the same at both the Bronzeville and Oak Park locations of this iconic Chicago restaurant, and there are options aplenty, from the eponymous Chicken & Waffles (if you like your waffle crispy, be sure to specify) to Omelets & Skillets, and classic Soul Food options. I’m all about the sides here — Cajun Red Beans & Rice, Macaroni & Cheese, Collard Greens, Cheesy Grits, and Theresa’s Cornbread are all favorites. It was a sad day when they closed their Evanston location, conveniently located a few miles from my house for maximum fried chicken and greens consumption.
4248 S Cottage Grove and TimeOut Market, 916 W Fulton Market, Chicago
There are two options for getting your Cleo’s fix: the original Bronzeville spot, or the Fulton Market offshoot in the TimeOut Market. Chef Kristen Harper opened this Soul Food restaurant in 2014, and it was soon recommended by the Michelin Guide as a “New Restaurant to Watch.” Southern-fried seafood and fish are specialties here, featuring Creole-spiced catfish and buttered lump crabmeat in a number of preparations, as well as fried chicken thighs and wings. The buttery grits are a must-order item, as are the 24-Carat Gold Muffins. Gild the lily with sweet and spicy Mango-Habañero Sauce for a real treat. Dessert? It’s Peach Cobbler for the win.
8251 S Cottage Grove, Chicago
They’re laying down hand-cut, freshly made donuts on the daily at this South Side favorite in the Chatham neighborhood. Look for the Chocolate Glazed with Sprinkles, the Strawberry-Glazed Donut, and the classic Jelly-Stuffed. You’ll also find gooey Cinnamon Rolls, Apple Fritters, assorted muffins, and Donut Balls. In a surprise twist, they’ve got a solid savory breakfast game here as well, with tasty egg sandwiches on toast or croissants. Make it a meal with a donut and coffee for a buck or so. Interested in the Big Daddy, a humungous donut that could easily serve four? They’re known for that one.
4801 N Broadway St, Chicago
Owner Tigist Reda is from Ethiopia, but has lived in Chicago for the last 20 years or so. She opened Demera in the Uptown neighborhood in 2007, and has been sharing her traditional Ethiopian cuisine with Chicagoans ever since. I love the Spinach Sambussas (fried dumplings) to start, followed by a family-style combo platter where everyone tears off pieces of the tangy, spongy injera bread and uses it to ladle up portions of the delectable Ethiopian stews like the Doro Tibs (cubed chicken in a spicy tomato sauce), Gomen (collard greens with onion, garlic and ginger), and spicy Misir Wot (red lentils in berbere sauce). Demera is a great option for vegans.
11 W Lake St, Chicago
This West Loop hotspot is helmed by Chef Lamarr Moore and owned by Ahmed Braimah. This is modern Soul Food, where the Shrimp ‘n’ Grits uses organic Anson Mills grits enhanced with mascarpone, chicken sausage, étouffée sauce, and a sunny-side-up egg, and “Sweet Potatoes and Corn Bread” means sweet potato hummus with cornbread crostini, drizzled with olive oil and topped with candied pecans. Craft cocktails are on point, and only $8 during Happy Hour Thursday – Saturday from 4-6 pm. The 1111 Signature Burger, eight ounces of Angus beef topped with bacon jam, aged white cheddar, crispy kale, and truff aioli, is a stunner.
1072 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago
Executive Chef/Owner Brian Jupiter — a James Beard Award Semifinalist and NOLA native — brings all the yummy to this Logan Square spot. Start off with the Char-Grilled Oysters, luscious with herby garlic butter, and an order of Smoked Jalapeño Spoon Bread. Follow that up with the Fish & Grits (crispy bites of Pacific bass sit atop grits laced with pimento-chipotle cheese) and a Smoked & Braised Lamb Shank with harissa-peppadew salsa served with garlic naan. Duck Dirty Rice, laced with duck sausage and duck confit, is a great side, as is the classic 5-Cheese Mac. Caramel-Pistachio-Date cake is the play for dessert.
711 Howard St, Evanston
Owner Lenice Levy knows how to keep the party going, even during a pandemic. The Jamaican food is fantastic (I’m partial to the Jerk Shrimp, Curry Chicken, Callaloo, and Rice & Peas myself), there’s a full cocktail bar, and live entertainment on weekends (Reggae on Fridays; DJ on Saturday nights). During the warmer months, enjoy the outdoor seating upstairs or in front of the restaurant, and keep them in mind for private parties.
1902 Green Bay Road, Evanston
We lost founder and humanitarian Hecky Powell to COVID in 2020, but his spirit of community lives on in his family, who have since kept the candle burning at this seminal Evanston BBQ spot. I’ve long been a fan of the Rib Tips (with Hecky’s special BBQ sauce, of course), Smoked Chicken, Sweet Potato Fries, and the Sweet Potato Pie. A toast to tradition, and to the Powell family.
1415 N Wood St, Chicago
Another Brian Jupiter joint, this Wicker Park spot has more of Big Easy vibe. Signature Cocktails include the boozy Hurricane and a Barrel-Aged Sazerac, which pair perfectly with the Hushpuppies with Pimento-Honey Butter, a cup of Gumbo, and a Fried Catfish Po’Boy, properly dressed. Don’t sleep on the Fried Chicken & Biscuits offerings, some of the best in the city. And bien sûr, you must finish your meal with some fresh Beignets dusted with powdered sugar. It’s the NOLA way. Be sure to check the website’s “Happenings” tab to see what’s coming up, like the monthlong Mardi Gras pop up in February, or Wednesdays Booze & Bingo.
1832 Church St, Evanston
All natural and responsibly sourced, the healthy offerings at Litehouse beckon you to lighten up! Dishes like Caribbbean Mango-Jerk Salmon, Jerk Tofu Bowls, Flatbread Pizzas (vegan option available), and Keto Tacos will hit the spot. Not feeling it? They’ve also got Fettucine Alfredo Bowls topped with chicken, steak, salmon, jerk chicken, or fajita veggies, as well as Jerk Fries topped with nacho cheese, onions, cilantro, and jerk sauce, so there’s that.
4609 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago
To honor his great grandmother Luella, chef/owner Darnell Reed named his Lincoln Square restaurant for the woman whose cooking inspired him as a child. You’ll be inspired, too, once you taste his Salmon Croquettes, Shrimp & Grits, Nashville Chicken & Waffles, Buttermilk Biscuits, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Skillet Cornbread. This is food to savor!
49 E Cermak Road, Chicago
Award-winning chef Erick Williams (Virtue Restaurant) has opened a new American takeout-only spot near McCormick Place offering casual foods with a hint of soul. This is comfort food you’ll be craving all winter long: hearty Gumbo with Cajun chicken and andouille sausage, Chop Cobb with Green Goddess dressing and all the fixings, Chicken Alfredo pasta (gluten-free available!), Honey-Mustard Salmon with asparagus and creamed corn, juicy burgers with hand-cut fries, and Cornbread with Honey Butter all share the glory. Finish up — or start, no judging here! — with treats from Brown Sugar Bakery. Don’t miss that glorious Caramel Cake!
201-209 E 75th St, Chicago
Talk about ahead of their time: for over 40 years, this Chatham nieghborhood eatery has been serving up vegan soul food. They used the early pandemic lull to rebuild and modernize their space, and now it’s bigger than ever. Start off with the Zesty Cauliflower Wingz or Vegan Crispy Caesar Salad, followed by a Vegan Quesadilla stuffed with sauteed onions, spinach, and house-made soy cheese. Soulful Steak and Rice, featuring vegan “steak” in jerk BBQ sauce with sauteed onions and peppers over rice, is another great option. Wash it down with the Citrus Detox Smoothie, or a Glow Forever Juice. Aren’t you feeling better already?
1601 Payne St, Evanston; 3517 N Spaulding Ave or TimeOut Market, 916 Fulton Market, Chicago
Classically trained chef/owner D’Andre Carter pivoted during the pandemic to focus on the soul food of his childhood, and what a success it’s been! He and wife Heather Bublick now oversee a food truck and three brick-and-mortar locations of this runaway hit. To my mind, the best Cajun Shrimp & Grits and Smoked Beef Brisket in the Chicago area, not to mention the insanely tender Cornbread Muffins, Braised Collard Greens with shredded smoked turkey, and that Signature Mac & Cheese. Bottled cocktails like the Grapefruit Greyhound will hit the spot. Pick up a bottle of Original BBQ or Jerk Sauce and start slathering it on everything. You won’t be sorry.
46 E 47th St, Chicago
They’re getting back to delicious basics at this Bronzeville ice cream store, making old-fashioned ice cream with real milk, cream, eggs, and sugar. And according to their website, “love” and “excellence” are always ingredients. Check out stellar flavors like Banana Pudding, Jamaican Rum Raisin, Melanin Magic (dark chocolate), Bronzeville Vanilla, Caribbean Coconut, and Honey-Cinnamon Graham Cracker. Grab a cup, a cone, a hand-packed pint or quart, or as long as you’re there, have one of their world-class sundaes. Perhaps the Warm Chocolate Brownie Explosion? And if that weren’t enough, check out their warm fruit cobblers — à la mode, of course
1462 E 53rd St, Chicago
This Modern Southern American Cuisine restaurant is one of the best restaurants in Chicago, full stop. Award-winning, classically trained chef/owner Erick Williams and his team are firing on all cylinders, every day. I could write a sonnet about his Fried Green Tomatoes with Gulf shrimp and remoulade, the Short Ribs with Caramelized Onion Gravy and creamed spinach, the Blackened Catfish served atop a bed of Carolina Gold rice with barbeque carrots. The biscuits! The Skillet Cornbread with Honey Butter! THE CARROT CAKE. Arrgh! Must make new reservations immediately.
More From Better:
- 13 Ways to Celebrate Black History Month in Chicago
- 14 New Chicago Restaurants to Check Out This Winter 2022
- New Study Suggests Red Wine Can Help Prevent Covid-19 Infection — But Some Drinks Do the Opposite
Julie Chernoff, Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and counts Northlight Theatre and Les Dames d’Escoffier International as two of her favorite nonprofits. She currently serves on the national board of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, an advocacy group addressing hunger issues in the U.S. and Israel for the nearly 46 million people — veterans, children, seniors, tribal nations, and more — who go to bed hungry every night.