(above, Common pictured at Army and Lou’s)
How does a person write an obituary for a restaurant? Not just a restaurant, but a place with historical significance. The Sun-Times did a pretty good job:
It was the late Mayor Harold Washington’s favorite restaurant — the booth where he always sat still bears his name. And its storied history goes beyond feeding the grass-roots political movement that elected the city’s first black mayor.
At its original Black Metropolis location, it fed the leader of another movement: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the ’60s.
But South Side soul-food legend Army & Lou’s, 422 E. 75th St., thought to be the oldest black-owned restaurant in the Midwest, closed its doors for the last time Sunday.
For 65 years, Army & Lou’s has fed celebrities, politicians, business moguls and others who slid into its red linen-tableclothed booths for greens and ham hocks, catfish, chitterlings and peach cobbler. Celebs ranged from Cab Calloway to Muhammad Ali to former U.S. Sen. Charles Percy.
Washington, a bachelor, would eat there up to three times a week, and was partial to just about everything, longtime staff like waitress Betty Martin recall….
…“It was a fine dining establishment, and the first place that a lot of middle-class African-American families back then were taking their children where there were linen tablecloths and napkins, and there was live music,” McDuffie recounted.
Yes, I can vouch for the cobbler, and lots of other dishes, too. But, I also know that Army & Lou’s suffered through multiple changings of hands (the last of which occurred in late summer/early autumn of last year). Chicagoans know that when businesses change hands too often, it can spell disaster (can we say Marshall Field’s?).
It’s really unfortunate, and I’ve even heard vegans send up condolences. But the issue that caused Army and Lou’s to close was not a lack of warm and fuzzy feelings, it was lack of support from the community in the form of dollars and cents.
Another issue was that since Army and Lou’s had relocated from Bronzeville to the Chatham neighborhood in the 1970s, very little had been done in terms of updating the aesthetics. Since the highest concentration of folks who eat out are 20-45 years old, and they tend to look for ambience when paying over $20 a plate, an overhaul of the dining room area would have been wise.
My vote, and I’m totally not kidding about this, is let’s call Chef Gordon Ramsay (from FOXs Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares) and get him to help them bounce back. He has a pretty good record of revamping restaurants on the brink. It would be great press, and would breathe new life into a local icon. Click here for a sample of Kitchen Nightmares’ brand of tough love.