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When the University bought Harper Court last May, tenants in the shopping center were informed that they would be forced to leave by January 31. Protest over the purchase was hardly unexpected – it’s par for the course when it comes to the University’s efforts to buy property or meddle with neighborhood development – but the administrators’ Harper Court ultimatum provoked something more than the usual ruffled feathers: Among the condemned businesses was a longtime dining favorite, Dixie Kitchen, a well-loved Southern restaurant near the corner of 53rd Street and Harper Avenue.

The uproar over Dixie Kitchen’s closing was a rare moment of unity in the neighborhood: Students, locals, visitors from greater Chicagoland, and even the President loved the restaurant and its endless baskets of johnnycakes. The only group that wanted it to go, it seemed, was the University of Chicago administration.

But leases are leases, and after an initial extension from the January 31 cutoff, Dixie Kitchen was finally shuttered on June 7. Yellow signs beseeching passersby to help save the restaurant were posted across Hyde Park to no avail. It seemed that after 15 years of service, the days of catfish, jambalaya, and peach cobbler were no more.

So when rumors began spreading around the neighborhood of a new Dixie Kitchen, a kind of secret, speakeasy incarnation of the original restaurant in an adjacent property, it seemed that it might well just be the wistful pining of diners robbed of their favorite Southern food establishment. I’m happy to report that this is not the case: Dixie Kitchen has morphed into a shadow restaurant within Calypso Cafe, and all the old favorites are there.

The sign reads: “Starting Monday July 6th you can join us at Calypso Cafe and enjoy some of your favorite dishes from Dixie Kitchen. Jambalaya, Gumbo, Fried Green Tomatoes, and a whole lot more! We’ll be there…… Hope you will too!!!!”

Dixie Kitchen and Calypso Cafe share an owner: Carol Andresen, who remains the last holdout in the U of C’s efforts to clear out Harper Court for a new developer. Though Dixie Kitchen’s lease expired, Calypso’s will last through June 2012 – and Andresen has said she intends to keep it running until then.

“We’re sad to see it go, but favorites from Dixie Kitchen have been added to our menu so you may continue to enjoy them after the restaurant closed its doors,” reads Calypso Cafe’s website. “[W]e are now serving many of your favorites from Dixie Kitchen in Hyde Park at the Calypso Cafe as well as our homemade Carribean fare.”

The full menu now includes a number of items from Dixie Kitchen, marked with a small logo to show they’re not among Calypso’s Caribbean offerings. Most of the things I could remember from Dixie Kitchen – fried green tomatoes, gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish etouffee, po’ boys, greens, red beans and rice, johnnycakes, johnnycakes, johnnycakes – were still on the menu.

Just across the way, the original Dixie Kitchen has been gutted:

Even with this haunting vision of what more than likely lies in store for Calypso once its own lease runs out, Andresen has gone to great lengths to recreate the atmosphere of Dixie Kitchen, redecorating the back dining room accordingly.

(courtesy http://www.calypsocafechicago.com/)

If – or, as seems to be the case, when – worse comes to worst and Calypso is pushed out of Harper Court along with its Dixie Kitchen hybrid, there’s still hope, even though Andresen says it’s not financially feasible to open another location in Hyde Park. There are two more Dixie Kitchens in the Chicago area: one in Evanston and another in Lansing. It will be a dark day indeed when a cobbler fix is that far away, but it’s good to know it will be there.

In other Harper Court news, the Hyde Park Herald reports today that Hollywood Video will now be included as a possible addition to any developer plans for the shopping center. Originally, the University said it was considering this option; now, Susan Campbell, associate vice president and director of the Office of Community Affairs, says that the rental shop will be included. University officials at Monday’s 53rd Street Tax-Increment Financing Council meeting suggested that the long-empty Harper Theater might be included in development plans as well.

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