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Chicago Artist Theaster Gates Plots a New Course for a South Side Mainstay

Retreat at Currency Exchange Cafe wants to give BIPOC chefs, artists, and creatives a platform

A person with a shaved head and a face mask pours a cocktail from a metal shaker into a plastic cup.
The cafe features a monthly rotating roster of chefs and vendors.
Retreat at Currency Exchange Cafe [Official Photo]

A popular South Side restaurant is going in a new direction. Artist Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation has converted Washington Park’s Currency Exchange Cafe to a space for chefs, artists, and creatives of color who have lost workspace and business opportunities because of the pandemic.

The space at 305 E. 55th Street is now known as Retreat at Currency Exchange Cafe. It’s a year-long pop-up outpost and branch the foundation, which aims to revitalize underserved neighborhoods through art and culture. Prior to the Retreat’s launch on October 9, acclaimed chef Cliff Rome helped steer the restaurant which was called Peach’s at Currency Exchange Cafe.

Rome exited and Gates is taking the space into a new direction.

“This is sort of a refuge for artists,” says programming manager and artist Barédu Ahmed. “We’ve lost access to really important space. It’s a precious resource, and [the pandemic] compounded that pressure. For us to be able to open our doors without artists feeling like they’re being vetted, that’s important and special.”

Chefs and artists of color frequently report that they are subjected to an elevated level of vetting in job searches as compared to their white cohorts. Chef Malcolm Hilliard, who worked at Alinea and Sixteen, says he was subjected to racism, including having his uniform drenched in urine at Sixteen, the restaurant inside the Trump International Tower, he tells Eater. Hilliard says he’s been talking to Gates about getting involved at Currency Exchange.

Lamar Moore, who is working in Las Vegas after winning the Food Network cooking show, also worked at Currency Exchange Cafe. He’s spoken about the lack of representation, mentorship, and capital and how that’s led many to drop out of the industry.

The cafe portion of the space, which includes a commercial kitchen, hosts a monthly rotating roster of chefs, vendors, and food truck owners who have encountered serious pandemic-related challenges like lost revenue from canceled summer festivals. For October, the cafe features South Side Neapolitan pizza purveyor O, Black Cat Pizza. Coffee, tea, and cocktails are also available. All food comes out of the kitchen packaged for takeout.

There is some limited indoor seating, but operators are encouraging customers to take food to go during the pandemic, according to visual artist Chantala Kommanivanh, who is also running hospitality operations at Retreat. Between a handful of socially distanced chairs and benches, the indoor space can seat around 10. There’s also an outdoor patio that will remain open as long as weather permits.

Operators see the pop-up as an incubator where visual and performance artists can test out concepts, collaborate, and develop important resources like audio and video recordings of their work. In addition to the cafe, the building includes meeting spaces, a new and used vinyl record store curated by Kommanivanh where locals can sell records on consignment, and distanced work spaces. Masks will be required for shared spaces, and capacity for special events and performances will be limited. Artists and chefs who want to learn more or get involved can reach out to Ahmed by email.

Retreat at Currency Exchange Cafe, 305 E. Garfield Boulevard, Open 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Currency Exchange Café

305 E Garfield Blvd, Chicago, IL 60637 Visit Website