Southern Comfort – In the heart of Chicago.
“Who’s next?” A server at MacArthur’s Restaurant keeps guests moving swiftly as a new wave of patrons pile into the lobby, waiting patiently in a line that winds around the restaurant and spills out on to Madison Street.
From Park Ridge to Palos Heights (everywhere in between and beyond), city dwellers and suburbanites head to the Austin neighborhood for Southern cooking – soul food, “a popular cuisine in African-American culture,” says Sharon McKennie, MacArthur’schef/restaurant manager. “It’s about the way Southerners prepare dishes, with heavy seasoning and lots of butter – real comfort food. When we opened the restaurant in 1997, we tested different recipes handed down from family and created by our cooks. It wasn’t a competition. If someone’s was better than mine, we ran with it for the restaurant.”
Ms. McKennie is the niece of the restaurant’s founder, Mississippi native MacArthur Alexander – a Vietnam veteran (with a Purple Heart) and the youngest of 11 children. After graduating from Mississippi Valley State University, he brought his business savvy/street smarts to Chicago, opened Mac’s Records (now Mac’s Music) in 1972 and quickly became a staple in the Austin community.
“Mac had the record shop for years and then branched off,” shares Ms. McKennie. “He owned multiple businesses and leased buildings to storefronts on the block.” But the idea behind MacArthur’s came from changing times. Mr. Alexander opened his eponymous restaurant when compact discs replaced records, forcing the music store to downsize and move across the street, leaving a large, empty space at 5412 West Madison Street.
“Mac wanted to do something with the vacant property, something we didn’t have,” explains Ms. McKennie. “So we said, ‘Let’s do a restaurant.’ And instead of it being a fast food place where people come in and leave, let’s try to do something where people sit down and enjoy dinner ‘cafeteria style.’ Austin is a middle class neighborhood, so we’ve always wanted residents to be able to eat what they wanted at an inexpensive price. That’s why we’re not offering steak and caviar. Everyone can have a nice dinner that won’t break the bank.”
With each dish being as flavorful as it is affordable, it’s rare not to see a crowd in inside MacArthur’s. The inside scoop, however, on avoiding a packed house is to dine there Monday through Thursday. Weekends are filled with patrons, especially on Sundays 2pm to close. And don’t worry about finding a place to park. The lot fits 10-15 cars, but there’s an additional lot in back that’s often empty – people forget it’s there. Otherwise, there’s plenty of free street parking.
Back inside, you’ll find Ms. McKennie either cooking in the kitchen, going over the books in her office or visiting with customers at each table to see how they like the food. Before she earned the title of chef/manager, Ms. McKennie started at MacArthur’s as a cook/cashier to put herself through college. “I always wanted to be in medicine/business,” she says. “I never wanted to work in a restaurant, but I loved to cook and used to sell dinners to people in the community to help pay tuition. I decided to take a semester off from nursing school to help the family since Mac doesn’t even cook. And although I have a business degree and wish I would’ve pursued nursing, I’m still here 16 years later.”
Managing the books in the morning and cooking in the afternoon/evening, seven days a week, Ms. McKennie doesn’t feel like it’s work. “When people say, ‘Oh you work at a restaurant?’ I say, ‘I work at more than just ‘a restaurant.’ I work at MacArthur’s!’ I have a lot of employees. I do my own scheduling, payroll. But it’s fun!”
Ms. McKennie is often the only woman in the kitchen. “There are a lot of young men cooking, some with troubled pasts. We bring them in and teach them – then we can’t get rid of them! I’ve always wanted to help people, and that’s what we’re doing here. That’s what Mac has always done for the community. We also have a lot of young females working behind the counter who come in on public aid, but after working for us for a while, they no longer need it. We encourage employees to go to school while working here, because we believe MacArthur’s is just the beginning for them. When they leave, they’re expected to do better, to go further in life.”
While Ms. McKennie may be the only woman in the kitchen at times, she’s not the only female serving up soul at MacArthur’s. Her cousin, Mr. Alexander’s daughter, Vanessa Cobbins, runs the show during MacArthur’s newly established breakfast rush.
“We used to be open for breakfast at the old location, which is now Leo’s Cheesecake, until we moved here in 2003,” notes Ms. McKennie. Serving grits, oatmeal, bacon, sausage, turkey, omelets and French toast, the restaurant plans to add more items as time passes. “We get so many requests; the menu will get bigger,” she insists.
The lunch/dinner menu changes every day, based on the fresh meats/greens available. Daily dishes include fried/baked chicken, greens, macaroni, yams, peach cobbler and banana pudding. And as someone who refuses to eat bananas, not only did I devour the pudding – decadent custard mixed with slices of bananas and vanilla wafer cookie crumbles — I ordered extra to take home.
While sitting with Ms. McKennie in a special ‘VIP section,’ often reserved for large groups and private parties, I learned more about what makes the banana pudding so delectable. “The custard is not store bought,” she reassured me. “It’s homemade and takes a long time to prepare. We used to do it the old-fashioned way, standing at the stove and stirring for over and hour. But then we realized we had to find a more efficient use of our time. So we bought 30- and 50-gallon kettles – to also make it easier on our arms.”
Other Southern staples include fried chicken, barbecue chicken, spare ribs, sweet potatoes and cole slaw. With so many options, MacArthur’s is the perfect place to load up a few plates with as many menu items as possible (for $6.99-$9.99/plate, depending on meat/sides desired) and share, buffet style, with your group so everyone may sample all the traditional Southern fare. “Don King came here once, looked at the food and said, ‘I want a plate of everything!’ So he got a plate of every single dish and shared it with his group,” recalls Ms. McKennie.
Although the menu rotates daily, MacArthur’s cooks 23 different entrees each week, offering between 7-9 of those main courses every day. Plus, there are 3 salads, 20 sides, 8 desserts and multiple beverages – but no alcohol. “It’s a family atmosphere. You won’t find TVs either. Come enjoy the food and conversation,” urges Ms. McKennie.
The ‘cafeteria style’ concept may seem confusing to newbies who’ve never set foot in MacArthur’s, which doesn’t take reservations and doesn’t have a host at the door. So you may walk in without knowing what to do, but it’s simple.
Walk through the large lobby past the gorgeous, wood-paneled booths, make a left to the counter and check out the signs for daily entrees/sides. And don’t forget to marvel at the wall of fame, featuring portraits of ‘regulars’ – a who’s who of renowned Chicagoans like President Barack Obama, NBA players Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Dwyane Wade, and singer R. Kelly to name a few.
“We do a lot of catering for local celebs,” reveals Ms. McKennie. “Every time R. Kelly has a show at the United Center, we’re there. He’ll also send trucks into the city from his south suburban home to pick up meals when he throws parties. Then there’s Scottie and Larsa Pippen, who have us cater all their holiday parties.”
And when the Hollywood elite visits the city, their first stop is often MacArthur’s. Shaquille O’Neal comes for his favorite dinner – a ‘block’ of macaroni and cheese with fried chicken. “He also pays for everyone else’s meal, everyone in line,” shares Ms. McKennie. “But I think one of the most memorable moments for me was when the comedienne MoNique came in and insisted on working behind the counter. She’d tell people they didn’t really need extra helpings, but she’d pass ‘em out anyway. She even answered phones. She really got into it.”
As for President Obama, he’s been a frequent customer since his days as Illinois senator. “He had meetings here and we’d look at him like, ‘Who are you?’ He invited people from the neighborhood for a sort of ‘town meeting’ to come and voice their opinions,” shares Ms. McKennie. “There was a physical fight once, but President Obama stepped in, calmed everyone down and let him speak. The meetings got so big they outgrew the room and needed an entire area. And although he became a political icon, President Obama was still comfortable sitting here, eating. Since he took office his schedule is crazy, so they usually order carry out. His favorites are fried fish and chicken, but we know the Obamas are health conscious as well…they also eat a lot of turkey.”
When you’re ready to order, don’t let the abundance of fried food and butter-rich dishes overwhelm you. If you have a special diet, all you need to do is call ahead to request healthier options, like yams with half the sugar, smoked turkey (cooked without extra fat) or diluted collard greens.
And while MacArthur’s will cater to the health-conscious, Ms. McKennie says most people, especially women, come in for the full Southern experience. “Many ladies want real soul food, and that’s the point. They want fried chicken, macaroni, grits. It’s normally, ‘I’m going to get what I want.’ And, as it happens, whether you’re a woman or man, when you get here your eyes are going to want more than your stomach can handle. But you can always take it home with you!”