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Diners mourn loss of Dixie Kitchen, an Obama favorite

Obama's glowing review—and 15 years worth of loyal diners—isn't enough to rescue Dixie Kitchen, which will be closing June 7.

Photo: Eric Guo/The Chicago Maroon
Hyde Park residents and visitors return to the Hyde Park Dixie Kitchen year after year for its delicious food and unique atmosphere.
Photo: Eric Guo/The Chicago Maroon
A customer walks into Dixie Kitchen while others wait outside for a table. The University plans to redevelop Harper Court and did not renew the leases of retailers in the complex.
Photo: Eric Guo/The Chicago Maroon
Customers wait to be seated at Dixie Kitchen in the final days before the restaurant closes.
Photo: Eric Guo/The Chicago Maroon
The signature dish at Dixie Kitchen is whole baby catfish, deep fried, and prepared with a side of corn and black eyed peas. After it closes, the restaurant's most popular dishes will be served at Calypso Cafe.
Photo: Eric Guo/The Chicago Maroon
Waiters must navigate efficiently in the small kitchen, which serves hundreds of customers a day.
Photo: Eric Guo/The Chicago Maroon
More and more diners flock to Dixie Kitchen upon hearing of the restaurant's closure, keeping waiters busy in the small space.
Photo: Eric Guo/The Chicago Maroon
Dorothy Wright (left) and Celeste Harris (right), residents of Bronzeville, enjoy johnny cakes while waiting for their meal.
Photo: Eric Guo/The Chicago Maroon
The restaurant's interior features bait shop memorabilia. Some of the restaurant's most popular dishes are Southern-style entrees, such as blackened catfish.
Photo: Eric Guo/The Chicago Maroon
Manager Walter Butler (left) discusses table waits with a customer as Robert Kuth (right) looks on. Waits are upward of two hours as the restaurant approaches its final day.

After Barack Obama settled on a Portuguese water dog for the White House pet, demand for the dog skyrocketed.  When Michelle donned a J.Crew outfit, it sold out in stores almost instantaneously.  And after an unaired 2001 episode of the amateur food-critic television show Check, Please! featured the president’s rave review of the restaurant’s affordably-priced Southern cuisine was released on YouTube, the restaurant received national attention and an influx of customers.

But Obama’s glowing review—and 15 years worth of loyal diners—isn’t enough to rescue Dixie Kitchen, whose owner Carol Andresen said that moving the restaurant out of Harper Court to another location in Hyde Park isn’t financially feasible.  The restaurant will close at the end of the day June 7.

The University and the city of Chicago are moving forward with plans for the redevelopment of Harper Court in an effort to revitalize retail in Hyde Park and attract neighborhood residents and visitors from outside of Hyde Park alike.

The University worked with the owners to help them look for new locations in Hyde Park, but Andresen said finding an appropriately sized space that included parking in Hyde Park was unlikely.  Relocation would also be expensive, she said.  Between moving and buying new equipment, she estimated that costs would run between $700,000 and $1 million.

Ricardo Lopez and his wife Linda live in northwestern Indiana, a 45-minute drive from Hyde Park.  They eat at the restaurant regularly when they come to the neighborhood to visit Ricardo’s mother.

“It’s worth the trip. We’re going to miss it,” said Ricardo. “The neighborhood, and obviously the food, is certainly worth coming for,” he added. 

Ricardo said he will continue to enjoy dining at Hyde Park, at restaurants like Calypso Cafe and Chant, but hopes that the new development at Harper Court will “keep the flavor of Hyde Park.”

Andresen has assuaged fears from diners worried about not getting to eat their favorite Dixie Kitchen dishes in Hyde Park by promising to add some customer favorites to the menu at Calypso Cafe, another of her restaurants that serves primarily Caribbean cuisine.

She plans to keep Calypso Cafe open until its lease expires in June 2012.  The University, which is working with the city of Chicago to redevelop the site, plans to continue developing Harper Court, and estimates that it may begin 24 months after a developer is chosen, as early as this fall.  According to that estimate, development would begin in the fall of 2011.

Currently, a shortlist of five proposals—from the development firms Joseph Freed and Associates, McCaffery Interests/Taxman Corporation, Mesa Development/Walsh, Metropolitan Properties, and Vermillion Development—are being reviewed.  The development will include a mix of commercial and mixed-income housing, and proposals including a late-night diner, the Gap, and local independent retailers are under consideration.

The redevelopment may bring more dining to Hyde Park, but until then, Dixie Kitchen patrons say they will frequent Calypso Cafe, Obama-favorite Valois, and newcomer hotspots Chant and Park 52, which is also in Harper Court but will remain in the complex.

Popular dishes at Dixie Kitchen include Obama’s favorites, the peach cobbler and the Southern Sampler, as well as blackened catfish and fried green tomatoes.

Dixie Kitchen opened in 1994, when Andresen and her husband Paul, both from Minnesota, decided to open a restaurant that catered to the diversity of the neighborhood.  The bait-shop decor and hearty Cajun cuisine attracted Hyde Park and South Side residents living in an area with a notable shortage of sit-down restaurants.

Andresen has since opened Dixie Kitchen restaurants in Evanston and Lansing.  Many regulars said they will get their Dixie Kitchen fix by driving to the other sites.

Manager Walter Butler said the restaurant has lately seen a significant uptick in business, as new patrons and regulars come to the restaurant.  Lately, the wait for a table has stretched upwards of two hours. 

Some of the most successful businesses in Hyde Park have been those that appeal to both the college community and South Side residents, a combination Dixie Kitchen fostered. 

Hyde Parker Vida Cornelious said she was disappointed to see the restaurant go.  “It seems to be a watering-hole for University of Chicago professors and people in the community,” she said.

“It’s a neighborhood staple, really a great restaurant, a great alternative when you want a substantial but cost-effective meal,” she said.

8 comments on “Diners mourn loss of Dixie Kitchen, an Obama favorite

  1. reply

    It will be a sad day when Dixie Kitchen & Bait House closes in Hyde Park. Although we’re about 35 miles away, we’ve enjoyed going to the Hyde Park area to poke around the neighborhood, check out the used bookstores, listen to music at the U of C and the like and topping it off (most often) with chowing down at Dixie Kitchen where I think we went for the first time about 12 or 13 years ago.

    I’ve been to the Evanston DK and it’s good, but Hyde Park is great. I hope DK comes back in Hyde Park with a similar look and feel and, of course, the wonderful food.

    Thanks, too, to the staff of DK. No matter how crowded and busy the place was (and it almost always was busy), they have been unfailingly courteous, helpful, efficient and professional.

    As K. Fernandez said so eloquently, ” :( . “

  2. reply

    P.S. To the University of Chicago folks. I certainly hope that you’re feeling some guilt and angst over wiping out a wonderful restaurant.

    Munn

  3. reply

    What a shame. Do we really need redevelopment of Harper Court? What’s so bad about it now? That area’s only become a bit of a ghost town since the University forced out all the stores on 53rd.
    The Gap?
    Come on, this isn’t Evanston.

  4. reply

    I have to agree with Jar Jar. Dixie Kitchen was a pleasant restaurant, but not really memorable. It’s a mystery to me why places like Dixie Kitchen and Harold’s get these reputations as incredible restaurants that should supply changes of pants on hand. I guess because most UChicago snobs have never actually been to the South and assume any food that is spelled funny or has a cute name must be what America is all about.

    P.S. Harold’ is pretty much the worst fried chicken I’ve ever had, and Dixie Kitchen’s catfish is mediocre at best.

  5. reply

    The DK was OK. That’s about it. It makes a nice change of pace and the food is decent… after it goes, there will still be plenty of places in Chicago to get a good meal. The redevelopment is about improving the whole neighborhood and making it more attractive to people who can afford to buy and pay… that’s what makes jobs. And certainly there will be new restaurants to fill in the new spaces. Life goes on.

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