A new sit-down restaurant will open next month in North Lawndale, a neighborhood where full-service restaurants and grocery stores are few and far between. But that’s exactly why the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, a community group, is teaming up with chef Quentin Love to open Soul Food Lounge in mid-May at 3804 W. 16th Street, on the ground floor of the MLK Legacy Apartments.
The Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, which focuses on spurring business in the area, suggested a soul food restaurant. The group’s leaders thought it would appeal to the Southern roots of many of the neighborhood’s residents. Love admits to getting a little bored with traditional soul food, so he decided to take what he describes as a fusion approach.
“I enjoy going to restaurants from different ethnicities,” he says. “How can I take the same influences from African American culture and blend those foods with these cultures we have new experiences with?”
Love will serve a riff on shrimp and grits — but with mofongo, the Puerto Rican mashed plantain dish, instead of the cornmeal. He’ll also serve mac and cheese, collard greens, and red beans and rice, but he’ll use seasonings from Indian, Latin American, and East Asian cuisines. “The spices are what makes things what they are,” he says.
Soul Food Lounge will have seating for 30 people and will not serve alcohol. The decor will pay tribute to the predominantly Black North Lawndale neighborhood through a jazz-themed, multi-wall mural celebrating Black music and history.
But Soul Food Lounge will be about more than just the food. Like Love’s most recent restaurant, Turkey Chop, which he opened in 2013 in West Humboldt Park in collaboration with the West Humboldt Park Community Development Council, Soul Food Lounge will be a community-building project. Love believes that a nice restaurant with good, beautifully plated food, served in an upscale atmosphere, can provide an essential service to a neighborhood like North Lawndale, where there are very few sit-down options besides a Lou Malnati’s and the Green Tomato Café inside the Lawndale Christian Health Center. He hopes it will offer a different experience than fast food. Instead of leaving the neighborhood for dinner out, residents have another option that’s nearby.
“In a community that is underserved, traditionally, businesses don’t look that well on the inside,” Love says. “You begin to expect that. And when that thing begins to change, you’re shocked. It’s like, ‘What’s this?’ We are not supposed to have anything nice in this community because — why? Because we never had it. Your mind is conditioned, you don’t deserve it. That’s why we get in our cars and travel into different communities for better experiences. Investors and developers do the same thing.”
Love isn’t the only chef eyeing an opening in the area. Soul Food Lounge will be about three-quarters of a mile from Soulé 2, a new outpost of Bridgette Flagg’s West Town soul food restaurant scheduled to open on Roosevelt Road later this summer. Both restaurants will be opening with the support of community organizations, although Soulé 2 aims to provide a more traditional soul food experience; it will also have a bar. Both Love and Flagg plan to hire workers from the neighborhood in an effort to spur more economic investment in the community.
North Lawndale is one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The median income is about $30,000 below the city average, and nearly half the residents reported an annual household income of less than $25,000 between 2015 and 2019, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.
Love believes that a restaurant like Soul Food Lounge has the capacity to get neighborhood residents to stay put, and even draw in outsiders — not just diners, but also other business owners and developers. He also believes that it can improve the lives of its neighbors. He knows because he’s seen it happen with Turkey Chop.
When Turkey Chop first opened nine years ago at 3506 W. Chicago Avenue, the Chicago Reader reported that West Humboldt Park was one of the largest heroin distribution centers in the Midwest and saw an average of six drug busts per day. Turkey Chop was part of a plan by community leaders to bring more businesses to the area. It was the first sit-down restaurant to open in the neighborhood in 15 years, according to the West Humboldt Park Development Council. The neighbors were suspicious initially, Love says, because the restaurant was something they’d never seen and they didn’t know what to make of it.
Turkey Chop didn’t fix all the neighborhood’s problems; drugs are still an issue, and it’s still the only sit-down restaurant on that stretch of Chicago Avenue. But over time, it did become known for its community outreach efforts in collaboration with local food pantries, such as giving away food on Mondays and turkeys on Thanksgiving; Love says he’s served 400,000 meals, though the pandemic put a stop to the program. Eventually, he moved into an apartment above the restaurant and became part of the community. “I wanted to make people see they were loved,” he says.
There will be neighborhood outreach at Soul Food Lounge, too, though Love isn’t sure yet what form that will take. He feels confident that the restaurant’s neighbors on 16th Street will welcome it, especially since, as Love points out, the restaurant won’t be loud or intrusive to preexisting community members. The MLK Legacy Apartments, built on the same spot where the civil rights leader lived during his Chicago Campaign in 1966, are already home to a community wellness center and an event space.
Love also feels confident that North Lawndale residents will be willing to pay an average of $25 per entree: “Never underestimate the value of the Black dollar. We want to spend our money on things that we think it deserves to be spent on.”
Love declined to discuss how the restaurant is being financed, but he says he’s grateful for the support of the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation. The organization’s leaders told Block Club that they hope to create a network of restaurants and bars that will make residents of North Lawndale, particularly young people, want to stay in the neighborhood.
These efforts coincide with a $200 million push by the city to increase development on the South and West sides. Plans include several mixed-use buildings with affordable housing in both West Humboldt Park (one just a block and a half from Turkey Chop) and North Lawndale. In addition, North Lawndale Fresh Meat & Produce Market, a Black-owned grocery store, will be opening in the neighborhood later this spring.
For Love, though, money isn’t the only thing that will transform a neighborhood. “A lot of things have been done by design by urban planners and developers,” he says. “People have been victims of these experimentations. We need to give people what they deserve and let them live a quality life. When you see a big push economically and money coming into underserved communities, you have to question, is it going to change things?”
Beauty, he believes, can also lower violence, or at least make people feel less angry and sad.
“My job is to take you on a journey,” he says. “When you come out of there, you’re going to feel better.”
Soul Food Lounge, 3804 W. 16th Street, opening mid-May.