Lincoln Park Discovers Its Soul

Must read

If you buy something from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.

When Shonya Williams, better known as Chef Royce, received a call from her daughter Tot in winter of 2022, she thought her prayers had been answered. Williams had suffered a stroke in 2019, which led her to close her two-and-a-half-year-old restaurant, Kiss My Dish in suburban Oswego. A veteran restaurateur who has opened four restaurants, Royce was taking time to heal while working as a caterer when she received her daughter’s call about a restaurant location that was being advertised as a turnkey rental at the corner of Armitage Avenue and Halsted Street in Lincoln Park.

Williams was already looking to open a new restaurant on the city’s West Side in Austin, but her daughter’s call was a sign: “I really wanted to be back on the scene again. [Cooking] is what I love. So I asked God, ‘When is it gonna be my turn again? I want to do this again.”

Williams signed a lease in Lincoln Park on March 15, 2023 across the street from where Chicago’s largest hospitality group, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, has three restaurants and a fourth on its way. She spent two months renovating the former Taco Bar space, opening Soul Prime, a soul food restaurant with fried chicken, fried catfish, and lobster on the menu, in time for Mother’s Day. But just four months later with a monthly rent of $14,338.51 and sales of less than $1,000 a day, she was thinking of closing.

“I didn’t have loans or grants,” Williams says. “I have money that I have saved on my own. And I used every single dollar getting the place to a beautiful look inside, so that I can match this amazing community. I needed support from this actual community that I sit in, which I didn’t know a whole lot about. Unfortunately, I did not spend any money on marketing. I felt like people knew [me and my work], and it didn’t work like that.”

Williams remains in business thanks, in part, to a visit from Keith Lee, an MMA fighter and popular food reviewer on TikTok. Lee reviewed Soul Prime in September 2023. In the video, he swoons over the collard green dip, fried chicken dipped in hot honey sauce, and peach lemonade while sitting curbside. He enters the restaurant after his meal is complete (something he says he’s never done before) to talk to chef Williams, who shares her struggle in bringing her vision to life and keeping it afloat.

The video is uplifting, finishing off with Lee asking Williams to ring him up for $2,200 — matching her sales for that day. But it’s Williams’s comments on the neighborhood that tell the true story of her struggle: A Black woman in a predominantly white area of Chicago trying to serve food that’s often misunderstood by the wider American culture outside of Black neighborhoods.

“I’m not getting a whole lot of reception from the community, but I need them because I’m in their community,” Williams says to Lee in the video. This is one of the few times she breaks eye contact with him and looks out the window, referring to the Lincoln Park area. “I haven’t got it.”

Soul food cooks often have to battle outside perception.

According to a 2023 Chicago Metropolitan Agency for City Planning report, Lincoln Park is a predominantly white community where 80 percent of people are white in the neighborhood even though white people comprise only 33 percent of Chicago’s population. The median household income level in the 60614 zip code is $123,044, well above the city’s median of $65,781. Soul Prime is the neighborhood’s only soul food restaurant. Soul food in Chicago is concentrated on the South and West sides.

“Soul food is one of the African heritage cuisines in the United States, bringing together the culinary ingredients, traditions, and techniques of West Africa, Western Europe, and the Americas,” says Adrian Miller, James Beard Award-winning author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. “More importantly, it’s really the food that Black migrants took out of the South and transplanted in other parts of the country during the Great Migration. It is socially stigmatized because it’s associated with slavery and poverty food.”

From catfish and grits to short rib, Soul Prime’s menu has something for everyone.

Before Lee’s visit one acquaintance advised Williams to lower her prices, add salads, and bundle sides in the cost and presentation of her main dishes, instead of selling them separately. But that’s not how soul food works, Williams says. “I don’t know how to cook any other cuisines,” Williams says. “I make no salads because that’s not what I am. That’s not where I come from. That’s not what soul food is.”

Miller says this is a situation that speaks to the larger issue of a restaurateur considered an outsider, having to legitimize itself outside of her own community, while simultaneously having to educate those unfamiliar with the traditions and prep of her cuisine. Today, it’s disproportionately falling on Black influencers and celebrities like Lee to seek out, sample, and celebrate Black-owned restaurants. Just look at Ayo Edebiri: The prominent Black Golden actress and star of The Bear, who won a Golden Globe this past January for her role in the culinary drama, used her platform after the awards gala to shout out Oooh Wee It Is in Hyde Park as “some of the best food [she’s] had in her life.” These spotlights are often a boon for the business, but they highlight a seemingly ever-present segregation between communities and cuisines and how they’re valued.

Chef Royce wearing glasses looking down at the food she just made.
Chef Williams has opened four restaurants and brought soul food to Lincoln Park’s toney community.

“People don’t want to pay a lot of money for that, so that’s why it doesn’t surprise me at all,” that someone without the understanding of soul food’s history and complexities would suggest lowering prices, Miller says. “If [Soul Prime] were just to call themselves a Southern restaurant, they could charge a lot more money. It’s really more about class and place than it is about race. People in the same socioeconomic class are usually eating the same kind of food.”

Chef Erick Williams faced a similar conundrum with Virtue in Hyde Park before he won his James Beard Award in 2022. Soul food and Southern food may look similar, but they are not the same. Miller says that soul food tends to be sweeter, more heavily spiced, and higher in fat. Soul food gets its name from the cadre of Black jazz musicians who were miffed by white jazz musicians making the most money from the musical genre that they created, says Miller. “They decided to take the music to a place where they thought white musicians could not mimic the sound. That was the sound of the Black church in the rural South. This gospel-tinged jazz sound emerged and the jazz artists themselves started calling it ‘soul’ and ‘funky’ soul. It was really ‘soul music’ first and then ‘soul’ just caught on in the culture: soul music, soul brothers, soul sister, soul food.”

Hands sprinkling green herbs on a bowl of fried chicken wings.

The term is most typically associated with the Black Power movement of the 1960s but its usage was floating around in Black culture well before that, Miller adds. The sentiment is echoed in the 1983 book Bricktop, by Ada “Bricktop” Smith and Jim Haskins.

“I learned about soul food [in 1910], only they didn’t call it soul food then,” shares Smith, the Chicago woman and entrepreneur who became a legend overseas for playing nightlife host during Paris’ 1920s. Her clientele included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, John Steinbeck, Duke Ellington, and Elizabeth Taylor. “Soul was something you didn’t talk about except in church. Soul food was Southern food. There weren’t all that many Negroes in Chicago when I was growing up, so it wasn’t until I went to places like Louisville and Cincinnati that I met up with Southerners and ate things like spare ribs and biscuits, sweet potatoes, and cornbread, chitlins, and fried chicken.”

Chef Royce is very proud of her team of mostly Black women.

Miller’s work is an effort to dispel misconceived notions around soul food and destigmatize years of history that have relegated it to lowbrow cuisine, synonymous with Black communities, instead of acknowledging its cultural significance that carries years of history within each bite of meat and three.

“The other main critique is that [soul food] is unhealthy,” says Miller. “There are people who think that by making soul food and serving it to our community. You’re literally digesting white supremacy because you’re celebrating stuff from slavery. There are others that say ‘Why are you serving us this food? It’s killing us because they’re looking at the health outcomes in Black communities and directly tying it to soul food. If you actually look at what enslaved people were eating, it’s very close to what we call vegan today.”

He explains how an enslaved person rose before sunrise and was fed “a trough filled with crumbled cornbread and buttermilk.” Their midday meal included seasonal vegetables, which might include meat to flavor the veggies but usually, it was only vegetables. Supper was whatever was leftover from lunch. “Only on the weekends, when work either stopped or slowed down did enslaved people get access to white flour, white sugar, meat and have cakes and desserts. That was special occasion food.”

“Like any other immigrant cuisine, soul food is the food Black people took out of the South and transplanted in other places,” says Miller. “There’s certain signatures [dishes] that show up in celebrations. If you look at any immigrant cuisine in the U.S., typically an immigrant restaurateur is serving the celebration food of their culture, because they want to show off the very best of their culture. They don’t highlight the day-in and day-out stuff. And that’s the way to think about soul food. So these things like fried chicken, barbecue, fried catfish — people are not eating that every day.”

A back room dining room at Soul Prime.
TikTokker Keith Lee was very excited about this place.

In Lincoln Park, Williams says she’s hopeful her restaurant can find a niche: “We shouldn’t have to go through ups and downs because of our skin color and I am glad to help break that barrier with food,” she says.

Miller says there are lessons to be learned from the barbecue world where the genre was once also considered “working class, cheap food, and now people are paying $36 a pound for brisket and $20 a pound for ribs. A lot has to do with barbecue being seen as cool and hip.” That’s essentially what these influencers are doing — spreading the word about something great that other traditional arbiters of value and attention may have ignored.

To date, the September TikTok video at Soul Prime has 9 million views, 1.2 million likes, and more than 23,000 comments. Lee recapped 2023 by ranking his top cities for food (ranking Chicago in his top three) and re-mentioning Soul Prime. Today, Soul Prime is still in business, which Williams credits to Lee’s visit.

“The Keith Lee community is my local community,” says Williams. “They come and say they were sent by Keith Lee. My community is Black people. I know that we don’t live in Lincoln Park. Some of them follow me from the South Side, the South Suburbs, the West Side. The ones who I see who are non-Black, walking up and down the street, those are the ones that I really wanted to reach. They’re coming in now, I love them. I’m grateful.”

More articles

Latest article