When Luella's Southern Kitchen opens on Tuesday, it will represent a giant leap for owner Darnell Reed, the former executive chef at the Conrad Hotel.
The casual, counter service restaurant stands at 4609 N. Lincoln Ave. Reed, a south side Chicago native, has spent years refining his techniques. He's long held a dream of running his own restaurant, but he didn't always want to open a spot that focused on southern cooking. He wanted to open a breakfast-centric place, where he could close up shop in the afternoon and go home.
But after an executive at the Conrad told him he "hit it out of the park" with a southern-inspired menu in 2013, he decided to tap into his roots. His great grandmother, Luella, moved the family from Mississippi to Chicago in 1943, and the restaurant is dedicated to her. But don't call her "Luella."
"She may slap you," says Reed, nothing she prefers a nickname, "Bay."
Reed, who left the Conrad officially last month, lives for feedback, whether it's a customer raving about the macaroni and cheese with braised short rib, or if it's the staff at Commander's Palace in New Orleans giving him advise on how to prepare shrimp and grits made with cream cheese grits and jumbo shrimp.
"Mine is more like a New Orleans style," Reed said of his shrimp and grits. "I've been to Commander's Palace plenty of times, even when I go there, I talk to the chefs and I ask them about the different things that they do and try to tweak mine. I never copy directly, but if they have a good idea, I'll go with it."
Avec's wood-paneled walls inspired some of the look at Luella's. There are tables for one at both windows. Framed Ernie Barnes prints cover the walls. The intro of the 1970s TV show Good Times featured Barnes' work (at the end), and Reed says he watched the show with his great grandma.
Lincoln Square needs a place like Luella's, which is BYO, and Reed will serve brunch on the weekends. Brunch features Bananas Foster pancakes. But overall, the catfish tacos are his favorite item on the menu to eat.
Check out the lunch and dinner menu: