When I was in my early 20s, I felt newfound freedom. I had a job, a car, and money to explore Chicago’s restaurant scene. And one of the cuisines I was always on the hunt for was soul food. I grew up watching my great-grandmother prepare huge Sunday meals, and I craved smothered chicken, creamy mac and cheese, and sweet candied yams. I was doing everything but drooling over the thought of a buttery corn muffin.
Soul food originated in the South and derives from Black culture. It comes from the heart and soul, created by enslaved Black people who made delicious, culinary masterpieces out of the scraps they were given to eat at the end of a grueling day. Southern food, however, is generally food created by people of different cultures and races from the American South. The two cuisines have evolved alongside each other, and have a lot in common - dishes like fried chicken, all things pork (from the rooter to the tooter), fried fish, greens, beans, cornbread, rice, and anything smothered in gravy.
This guide highlights a few of my favorite Southern and soul food restaurants in Chicago. While I can’t name them all (there are too many great spots), here is a list of the 21 best.
You can’t be in Chicago and not eat at this 129-year-old institution at least once. And even though Daley’s moved directly across the street to a much bigger space in 2019, the friendly faces, welcoming atmosphere, and great food are the same. Chicago’s oldest restaurant continues to serve the community with great diner-style dishes, as well as soul food classics - like their fried catfish meal. Coated and seasoned with a cornmeal mix, the catfish filets come with your choice of soup or salad, one side, and either two sweet corn muffins or two slices of garlic Texas toast.
A Black-owned, woman-led restaurant, Lloyd’s Upscale Catering is one of the best spots for crispy fried chicken and tasty sides. This carryout and delivery restaurant operates inside a ghost kitchen in Avondale. And Lloyd’s has things like tender barbecued turkey tips, flavorful fried chicken, and macaroni that’s fully loaded with cheese. All of which you should order immediately.
Luella’s Southern Kitchen
Named after chef and owner Darnell Reed’s grandmother Luella, this Black-owned counter-service restaurant in Lincoln Square serves up masterfully executed Southern dishes. You’ll find salmon croquettes with fried corn maque choux, biscuits with fried chicken and andouille sausage gravy, and barbecued New Orleans-style shrimp and grits in a spicy, garlicky Creole sauce. Luella’s is small, relaxed, and you can carry out or dine in for a casual meal. Also, it’s BYOB.
An old favorite on Chicago’s west side, MacArthur’s is a Black-owned cafeteria-style restaurant serving homestyle classics like fried chicken, hearty meatloaf, sweet potatoes, mac and cheese, and peach cobbler. And you should always finish your meal off with the peach cobbler. Usually a seat-yourself, dine-in restaurant, MacArthur’s is only offering carryout and delivery at this time.
I can never choose just one thing at Chicago’s Chicken and Waffles in Bronzeville, because everything here is that good. I have to order Tonya’s Choice, which consists of three crunchy fried chicken wings and a huge, fluffy waffle. While I’m at it, I also get the deliciously gooey mac and cheese, the glazed mashed sweet potatoes, and some rice and gravy. Also worth noting is that there is another location in Oak Park, which is also great for groups.
Every now and then I enjoy a meatless meal. The Original Soul Vegetarian, a vegan Southern and soul food restaurant, has been “serving food as medicine” in the Chatham area for 40 years. But they recently renovated and revamped, and are now known as Soul Veg City. Family-owned and operated, Soul Veg City provides a takeout or dine-in experience, with deli-style dishes and a $9.95 per pound hot station. That’s where you can get dishes like smothered seitan steak and gravy, cornbread dressing, and delicious vegan mac and cheese.
I like to describe Virtue in downtown Hyde Park as “Elegant Southern.” This large and open space has a large dining room, with a separate bar area that’s great for after-dinner drinks. Virtue makes Southern classics like fried green tomatoes topped with tangy remoulade-coated jumbo shrimp, and the seafood pairs exceptionally well with the cornmeal-fried tomato. Also, the chicken gizzards with dirty rice, pickled celery, and gravy are another winner on the menu Deep-fried and garnished with paprika and cayenne pepper, they’re incredible.
A Southern and soul food restaurant and buffet located in the Bronzeville neighborhood, Pearl’s Place serves plenty of Southern classics. That means dishes like fried chicken, lightly battered catfish, shrimp and grits topped with bacon crumbles, and chicken and dumplings. You have a choice to order directly from their menu, but the buffet is the best way to go. The portions are bigger (if you’re doing it right) and you can try a bunch of dishes at a lower price.
Chicago Food on the Run
What we have is a failure to not be gluttonous at this fantastic takeout-only soul food spot in Auburn Gresham. The smothered chicken wings are swimming in a succulent brown gravy with slivered onions. Then there’s the super creamy mac and cheese, which is so rich you’ll feel like a millionaire. The seasoned string beans with white potatoes are wonderfully zesty. The candied yams are in a cinnamon sugar sauce, and their container should have the disclaimer “handle with care” because it contains something precious. Available for pick up and delivery, you place your order at the counter, then hang out inside the small restaurant while you wait. In other words, don’t run past this restaurant - go inside and order all you can.
Southern Twang is a Black-owned pickup and delivery-only Southern restaurant operating inside of an Avondale ghost kitchen. It specializes in Creole-inspired soul food dishes with a Chicago twist, like lobster mac rolls. Egg roll wrappers are filled with pieces of seasoned lobster and mac and cheese, fried to a golden brown, then topped with a spicy aioli. The shrimp po’boy is another favorite, and so are the cinnamon roll beignets, which are a sweet (and warm) companion perfect for lonely nights. Please note: Southern Twang is temporarily closed while moving to a permanent home, but is still open for catering.
There’s a saying that goes, “Issa hit!” It means something is the truth, or it’s official, and that describes Roy’s Soul Food perfectly. It’s a fantastic Black-owned soul food breakfast and lunch spot in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. And even though they close at 4:30pm, their menu has plenty of dishes that can keep you full until the next day. With things like fried pork chops that are perfectly seasoned, smothered in a housemade gravy, and served with smoky collard greens that have a hint of spice, Roy’s is indeed a hit.
What started out as a sweet tea business, Oooh Wee It Is has expanded into a nostalgic (and entertaining) cereal bar and soul food joint in Chatham. This place has live music weekly, and is open for brunch and dinner. You’ll find favorites such as fried catfish, juicy green beans and white potatoes, and smothered pork chops with rice. However, one of the best things here are the pot roast cupcakes. This appetizer is a sweet corn muffin, layered with mashed potatoes, tender pot roast with gravy, and garnished with shredded cheese and green onions. Diners have been mixing these ingredients together on their plates since forever, it’s about time someone gave it the recognition it deserves.
Big Jones in Andersonville shows off Southern cuisine by making dishes that have bold and bright flavors, and using few processed ingredients. The menu has flavorful dishes like chicken deep-fried in pork fat and bacon drippings, served with a soft buttermilk biscuit and housemade blackberry jelly designed to spread on the biscuit and the chicken. You can enjoy all of this deliciousness in their upscale dining room, their newly-added chef’s counter, or catching a breeze out on the patio.
A spacious restaurant with a relaxed, fun, and warm atmosphere, Wishbone has been in the West Loop for over 30 years. Though recently moved to a new location in the neighborhood, this spot continues to focus on Southern food and delicious cocktails. Wishbone has dishes like huge, fluffy biscuits with pork gravy, and bread pudding that feels like a warm hug. In other words, no judgment if you are caught licking the plate. Also, toast up with my main man Bootsy Collins - no, not the legendary musician. A tasty drink made with tequila, lemon, blackberry syrup, and ginger beer.
With three locations and a food truck, Soul and Smoke pairs barbecue with soul food flawlessly. The mac and cheese is filled with so much sharp cheddar the flavor bursts through the dish. The pulled pork is so well-seasoned it needs no sauce - the taste of the meat stands alone. Grab carryout from their locations in Evanston and the South Loop, or head to Time Out Market and eat your ribs in their large food hall.
I’m not sure when we all decided to put honey on our chicken, but I’m so glad we did. Honey Butter Fried Chicken is (as the name suggests) a fried chicken restaurant in Avondale. Their chicken is beautifully fried and should be paired with their sweet corn muffins, pimento mac and cheese, and a side of their honey butter. Always get the honey butter...to spread on your chicken, to put in your glove compartment for an emergency, or just to hoard in your condiment drawer at home. Never leave the restaurant without it. Honey Butter Fried Chicken is currently only open for outdoor service, and they have a cute back patio.
Ina Mae Tavern and Packaged Goods is a New Orleans-inspired restaurant in Wicker Park, and if you’re missing home (and home is New Orleans), this amped-up bar space will make you feel like you’re standing right in the middle of Frenchmen Street. For example, the beignets will make any transplant happy. They’re doughy, sprinkled with a ton of powdered sugar, and are some of the best in Chicago. The fried catfish is also on point - it’s sizzling hot and seasoned with a delicious blend of Creole spices. And please don’t leave here without having a flaky and soft biscuit drizzled with their hot honey sauce.
5 Loaves Eatery
Do you love shrimp and grits? What about sweet and savory chicken and waffles? Crispy fried catfish and soft scrambled eggs? If so, then you should know about 5 Loaves Eatery, an excellent soul food breakfast and lunch spot on the southside. It’s the kind of quaint place where the breakfast special comes with a soft, buttery biscuit, and basically everything on the menu will remind you of cooking at home on a Saturday morning, but without all the dirty dishes to clean afterward. 5 Loaves is currently available for takeout-only.
Operating out of the 2537 S. Wabash restaurant hub, Mae’s Que House serves quality smoked meats and soulful sides that you will think about for days after. If you’re having a hard time ordering, their duo meals (like the rib tips and hot link) are an easy (and filling) decision. They come with your choice of two sides, and I recommend the smoked mac and cheese, and their sweet and tangy Granny Smith apple coleslaw - to eat by itself, or put on your hot link. Available for pickup and delivery only.
This is a bar and restaurant in Edgewater serving Southern food from the bayou. If you’re looking for some NOLA treats like barbecue jumbo shrimp with french bread for dipping, thick and hearty smoked chicken gumbo with andouille sausage, and your own personal pan of sweet cornbread topped with a scoop of hot sauce honey butter, you’ve found a great place. Also, make sure to get one of their amazing fried catfish po’boys too. It comes on a french roll loaded with shredded lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and a spicy tartar sauce.
Does peach bourbon french toast or seared salmon croquettes with smooth and creamy cheesy grits sound like some good Southern comfort cooking? Absolutely. And that’s what you’ll find at this counter-service spot on 47th and King Drive. Peach’s is like a little slice of heaven on the South Side. And those little slices also come in the form of their decadent pound cakes. Currently, they are operating just for takeout.