Kevin Kelley says he regrets little after a viral video from November showed him admonishing customers dining at his Dallas restaurant, True Kitchen + Kocktails. The video made Kelley a celebrity who generated national headlines with a profanity-laced speech that critiqued customers for twerking, saying if that didn’t abide by his rules they could leave.
The conversation crossed over many topics including how a man could tell a woman what’s appropriate, Black respectability politics, and proper customer conduct. When asked what he learned, Kelley replied that he wishes he didn’t use obscenities. Still, now seven months later, Kelley stands behind his words that were even covered by TMZ.
“If I don’t apply my standards in my restaurants, then maybe I won’t have the opportunity to open in another location,” Kelley says.
Kelley says he’s glad that the anti-twerking incident led to discussions and while there was apparent fallout from the video, Kelley says customers continued to fill his Dallas restaurant which debuted in 2020. He’s also managed to find opportunities elsewhere and is preparing to move to Chicago to open a River North restaurant. Kitchen + Kocktails by Kevin Kelley should debut in mid-August inside the former Benny’s Chop House. It’s a 10,000-square-foot restaurant with room for 207 patrons, including two bars and a 44-seat private dining area.
A businessman and attorney, Kelley sees a niche for comfort food in Downtown Chicago and is planning to bring a version of his Dallas restaurant’s Southern menu of chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, and banana pudding. Chicago will soon taste what’s become “the talk of Texas” Kelley says. He’ll also offer new items like jerk chicken and a tomahawk ribeye steak. The steak can come jerked or grilled and dipped in a special Asian-inspired Hennessy cognac sauce. He’s bringing over his executive chef, Vanessa Brown, and she’ll run both Chicago and Dallas kitchens.
Kelley is respectful of Chicago’s restaurants, singling out chef Erick Williams at Virtue in Hyde Park and Maple & Ash in Gold Coast (the steakhouse just announced a Dallas location). But Downtown Chicago is devoid of Black-owned restaurants and bars, an issue widely discussed. In a city whose mayor and health department, just on Thursday declared racism a public health crisis, the economic opportunities for Black hospitality workers downtown show a discrepancy. That problem isn’t unique to Chicago, Kelley says, as he poured praise on the city’s leadership and says he’s traveled the world and has never been welcomed so kindly. Kelley says he’s been looking to expand to another city for a while and was lucky enough to connect with an agent who showed him around Chicago and the former Benny’s space.
Kitchen + Kocktails aims to present Southern comfort food in an upscale setting. Sure there are other places for chicken and waffles (though Kelly feels his versions are special as they come in a variety — Nashville hot, smothered with gravy, or with the aforementioned Asian Hennessy sauce), but none in such a sophisticated space: “This will be the most Instagrammable restaurant in Chicago,” he says, mentioning LED screens, an high-end finishes like marble bar tops.
The music, top 40 contemporary, will also bring a vibe: “You may walk in and hear Kanye, and maybe next you’ll hear some Beastie Boys.”
Kelly is also keen about the cocktails. In Dallas, the Candy Cloud looks like cotton candy. The True Flame arrives to the table lit on fire. Another, a frozen drink, is made with Jay-Z’s D’Ussé VSOP Cognac.
Chicago’s downtown has plenty of steakhouses, and Kelley sees an opportunity: “You can’t eat steaks five days a week.”
Look for more coverage as opening day grows close.
Kitchen + Kocktails by Kevin Kelley, 444 N. Wabash, planned for a mid-August opening.