Since 1945, when William and Luvilla Armstrong opened Army & Lou’s on East 75th Street, the home-style eatery has catered to luminaries and regular folk alike in a way that made it more than just a soul food restaurant. It became known around the city (and beyond) as a cultural and political institution.
On Sunday, the current owners of Army & Lou’s closed their doors in an attempt to buy time to attract new investors as they ride out a sluggish economy.
Army & Lou’s is just one of several soul food landmarks that have closed recently in the city. Edna’s, which closed last year, had been on the West Side for 41 years. Gladys’ LuncheonetteÖ had been in the Bronzeville neighborhood since 1951, but closed not long after its owner, Gladys Holcomb, died in 2003. Soul Queen, which opened in 1970 on 22nd Street and later moved to Stony Island Avenue, closed in 2009.
And until Izola’s Restaurant on East 79th Street shut its doors recently, Izola White had presided over her establishment for more than 50 years. Last October, mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel visited Izola’s during his “listening tour” and got an earful from patrons.
In their heyday, these iconic restaurants were the heart and soul of the community, acting as a hub for politicians, civil rights leaders, ministers and community activists plotting strategy, and for the Average Joe, who just came in seeking the warmth of a kind word and good meal.
Chicago historian Timuel Black said that part of the draw was the smothered fried chicken, homemade biscuits, collard greens and peach cobbler. But, once upon a time, black patrons also came because they either were not allowed or not welcome in many Chicago restaurants outside of the Black Belt.
“You could get that good food at home,” said Black, 92, who once led the Chicago chapter of the Negro American Labor Council, which held meetings at Gladys’ and Izola’s. “But it was the camaraderie that attracted you. It was the conversations and the owners who knew you by name and came out to talk to you. It was the history and the pride that you could touch and taste and feel.”
He said owners unapologetically extolled the best and the brightest of the community.
Izola’s main dining area displayed enlarged photographs of former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and U.S. Representative Charles Hayes, near the table where the two often held court. It’s been reported that they were seated at table 14 when Washington, then a congressman, told Izola White, “'Charlie's taking my seat, and I'm gonna run for mayor” in the 1983 election.
Army & Lou’s had a wall of fame of celebrity patrons that included portraits of entertainers Smokey Robinson and James Brown, and authors James Baldwin and Richard Wright.
Gladys’, a favorite for many involved in the city’s Black Arts Movement, displayed sculptures of artists along with obituary programs, church announcements and the stellar report cards of neighborhood children.
And nearly every establishment had some memorabilia showing that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had stopped by.
Black said that early on, many of the restaurants that African-Americans patronized were on 47th and 51st streets. But in the 1940s, as Supreme Court decisions outlawed restrictive housing covenants, blacks slowly moved beyond the Black Belt, and so did their restaurants.
Josephine Wade, who owns Captain’s Hard Time Dining & Josephine’s Cooking with her son Victor Love, said that the older restaurateurs came from the South during the Great Migration and, like many of their patrons, were residents in the communities that housed their businesses.
“We were business people but we also cared about the community and social change,” said Wade. “I came up through the labor movement and (Rev. Addie Wyatt) was one of the first to talk about equal pay for equal work for women. Back then we had a forum and you could eat and listen and learn.”
Wade said Hard Time has been on East 79th Street since 1987, but struggles to keep its doors open. She said that in 2002, the family closed its seafood restaurant, which had been in Chatham for 50 years.
“The entertainers, the politicians, they just don’t hardly come around anymore,” she said. “Most elected officials come through here and you help them with their fundraising events but the minute they get elected, they don’t come back.”
During the 1990s, Mercedes Cook worked as a cook at Army & Lou’s and Izola’s. In the early 1970s, she worked for Soul Queen. She said she watched as the businesses’ clientele became more racially diverse over the years.
“White elected officials and city workers came from the North Side and Bridgeport,” said Cook. “People came from the suburbs. And tourists, of all kinds, came from all over the world. And they wanted real soul food, what you learned in your grandmother’s kitchen. When I went into the white (restaurant) sector, I had to learn gourmet. But not on the South Side.”
Cook said she also saw the restaurants adapt to changes in the community.
“At first you could walk in off the street,” she said. “But then after a few break-ins here and there, some of the restaurants had buzzers and the police stopped in to eat and show they were watching over things.”
She said the establishments weren’t perfect, but they played a vital role for the people and the times they served. The challenge has been attracting a new generation that has seemingly endless restaurant choices and more concerns about nutrition.
McDuffie said that Army & Lou’s for years has been using turkey to season some dishes and has expanded its menu to include lighter fare such as tilapia and salmon.
“But we still had ham hocks on the menu,” she said. “Chitterlings was still on the menu. The old model was still there. But we had created a web presence with the menu and started a Facebook page.”
McDuffie said there is a possibility of reopening Army & Lou’s if they can find investors.
“People are upset and disappointed,” she said. “It’s sad especially after seeing the responses, including tears, now that we’ve closed the restaurant. But I don’t think they understood that in order to keep it going, they needed to (patronize) the business.”