Explore Chicago’s South Side With Recs From a Local Expert
The founder of grassroots org Causing a Stir shares her favorites
Celebrated Chicago barkeep Alexis Brown is as passionate about her hometown as she is about hospitality—and that’s to say, pretty damn passionate. The born-and-bred Southsider made industry waves back in 2016 when she co-founded Causing a Stir, a grassroots foundation focused on fostering inclusivity within the bartending community by empowering underrepresented folks via specialized training courses, mentorships, professional collaborations, and other vital career advancement tools. Throughout her decorated career, Brown has mixed it up behind the sticks everywhere from swanky West Loop restaurants to high-volume events, secured a spot on Wine Enthusiast’s 2019 40 Under 40 list, and most recently started working as an Education Ambassador for Hennessy US. And through it all, she’s always remained loyal to the city that raised her.
“My dad and his family, they’ve all been in Chicago for the last maybe five or six generations,” she says. “When the great migration happened after slavery was abolished and everybody moved out of Mississippi to the North, his family came to Chicago. There's even an article about us—they did some ancestry work and traced the line back to my great, great, great, great, great grandmother. It was just so interesting to see, like, ‘Wow, we've all been here ever since then.’”
A self-proclaimed history nerd, Brown has always been interested in investigating and preserving the South Side’s—and particularly Bronzeville’s—rich cultural past. She’s spent countless hours poring through archives, bringing to light long-shuttered bars, restaurants, theaters, and other institutions that were once pillars of the largely self-sustaining Black population. All that digging has led her to the understanding that Bronzeville actually encompasses a bit more real estate than what Google Maps might portray.
“So, I like to give some historical context,” she explains. “Bronzeville, traditionally, was that whole stretch from about McCormick Place, so like 26th Street, to around 63rd Street—that was what they considered the boundaries. And they called it Bronzeville because that's where the bronze people lived. Due to restrictive covenants, there was literally a line Black people couldn't cross to buy property or rent or anything. These were the only places we could go.”
“This is also where Black people were able to thrive in the city,” Brown continues. “We kind of built something out of nothing. The Black surgeon came from Bronzeville, what we know now as the lottery started as the numbers game on the South Side, some of the first Black banks in Chicago were in Bronzeville. I feel like knowing your history is how you can move into the future with a little more direction."
As with so many American cities, decades of white flight, widespread disinvestment, and blight spurred by rampant systemic racism has taken its toll on the area. Today, Brown views the South Side as “somewhat of a food desert,” even as gentrification continues its northern march from the University of Chicago’s stately Hyde Park campus. “But,” she adds, “the places you do find, they are like these little gems.”
“Back in the day, we recycled our dollars right here,” she says. “We used to have grocery stores, we had restaurants, all of these things we don't have anymore. From the '80s going into the '90s, that’s when everything started crumbling, you know? But that history is what drives me, thinking about ways to get the neighborhood back to what it was and encouraging the next generation to keep that fire and passion going. I feel like knowing your history is how you can move into the future with a little more direction.”
And while Brown made the move downtown in recent years, her connection to the South Side remains as strong as ever. “That's where I've been all my life,” she says. “My mom still lives on 31st Street. My best friend, she lives on 47th Street. That's where we're from. So yeah, I'm tied to it no matter where I live.”
Take a page out of Alexis Brown’s ridiculously well-researched book and explore the South Side for yourself (socially-distanced and masked-up, of course). Here’s a list of can’t-miss recommendations to get you started.
“Growing up on the South Side and living downtown now, there are a few must-haves I absolutely have to hit up if I'm on the South Side and one of them is A.P. Deli. It’s a corned beef place and they have this sandwich called The Big Beef. For real. Everybody on the South Side knows that A.P. Deli is the place for that.”
How to order: Call 773-288-4931.
“There are a few vegan spots where you have organic, whole foods, wraps and stuff. I like a place called B'Gabs. They have smoothies and a lot of really good original vegan and vegetarian options.”
How to order: Click here to order online.
“For breakfast, there are a couple of different spots I like, but the best in Bronzeville is called Pearl's Place. It has a lot of history, too. It's attached to a motel, and they used to hold concerts there. Duke Ellington and a lot of the other jazz greats, they would play there at night, get a room at the motel, and then eat breakfast at Pearl’s the next day. They have this breakfast buffet they do every day and it's really, really so good.”
How to order: Use Chownow to order online.
“When it's not COVID, Ja' Grill is a super hip spot. It’s a Jamaican place and it has, in my opinion, the best lamb chops. They’re the best jerk lamb chops you’ll ever have.”
How to order: Use Grubhub to order online.
“If we're talking about diverse types of cuisine rather than your fast food or soul food, Hyde Park is kind of where to go. And if you want to sit down and have more of a fancy dinner, it’s got to be Virtue by Chef Erick Williams.”
How to order: Use Toast Tab to order online.
“When I go to the South Side, I'm specifically looking for all the junk food, all the bad food. I mean, obviously, it’s all about Harold's Chicken. Southsiders are Harold's Chicken people. Uncle Remus? That’s Westside people. They put an Uncle Remus on 47th street and I'm very surprised that it's still in business… ”
How to order: Use DoorDash to order online.
“If you want well-seasoned, not bland vegan food, there’s this African place on 71st and Exchange, Majani. That's another really, really great place I like to go in South Shore.”
How to order: Click here to order online.
“Dock's! Dock's has always been a South Side favorite. You have to go to Dock’s for a Famous Fishwich sandwich. They opened up a location on 35th Street in Bronzeville and, actually it's funny, my ex-boyfriend and his family owned that one. Yeah, they franchised that.”
How to order: Call 312-929-2336 to order.
“There's a place on 47th Street, Gorée Cuisine. It is a Senegalese spot, and they do a really, really good whole fish. I always get the snapper, and I think you can get it three different ways, depending on the marinade, but they’ll grill them all.”
How to order: Use Grubhub to order online.
“We have to talk about Trez Pugh. He opened a few cafes—one is on 53rd Street, one is on 43rd, and one is on 47th, and they're called Sip & Savor. The one on 53rd in Hyde Park, they actually have a liquor license so you can get your tea or coffee spiked and they have some special cocktails—it's kind of a hidden menu, but it’s available.”
How to order: Call 773-855-2125 to order.
“Kimbark is a great Black-owned liquor store in Hyde Park, been there since the ‘60s. And they just announced that they’re using their window space to educate people about different contributions Black people have made in our community all throughout Black History Month.”
How to order: Call 773-493-3355 to order.
“Theaster Gates, he basically turned a bank into a library, and that’s the Stony Island Arts Bank. They have a bar there and they do a lot of live performance art—so poetry, spoken word. It’s beautiful. You can look through old Jet magazines or Ebony Magazines and play all different records. There's a lot of traditional house records there and when the library is open, you can go and check out, which is really, really awesome.”
“There’s a garden I love in Jackson Park and I don't think a lot of people know about it. I lived in Chicago my whole life and my friend just introduced me to it like four years ago. I think that everyone should go and see that, in the spring or summer, of course. Anything outside in Chicago is kind of difficult to maintain, especially with our winters, but when it’s in full bloom, it is really beautiful. I've gone out there to picnic and read and just kind of clear my mind.”
“Every Chicagoan should take a walk-through of the 53rd Street strip. You can see where Barack Obama and Michelle Obama had their first kiss, you can see their house. You can see Louis Farrakhan's house, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad's old house, you can see Muhammad Ali's old house—all right there in Hyde Park.”
“Another art space I love is Gallery Guichard on 47th Street. We actually held our first Causing A Stir gala there. It's a husband and wife duo, Andre and Frances Guichard—I think they're both artists. They showcase a lot of Black artists and do a lot of work in the community. They have an artist’s loft where they host resident artists and then the gallery is on the main level. They also have some public art on the outside, like installations people can see year-round.”
“Oh, and the Silver Room! I love the Silver Room. It's a store in Hyde Park and they have great things—books and clothes, jewelry, mostly from local Black artists.”
“The rocks at Promontory Point are a really nice place to hang out. You can barbecue over there and you get a really, really amazing view of the skyline. I might be a little biased, but I believe you get the best view of the downtown skyline from the South Side, honestly. You can just see everything.”
“If you're on the South Side, you have to check this area out. There are huge houses, like the houses that you see Hyde Park, just huge. I love perusing around there because you don't see architecture like that anymore.”