Making a bet that Hyde Parkers will be willing to eat Southern breakfasts all day long, a bowling alley owner and a renowned pitmaster are teaming up on a new diner and cafe near the University of Chicago campus. Roux, the new project from Steve Soble, former owner of Southport Lanes and currently the owner of Seven Ten Social, opened for business last week with a menu from consulting chef Charlie McKenna, best known for essential barbecue spot Lillie’s Q.
Soble and McKenna have collaborated before: McKenna devised the menu for Seven Ten Social when it opened last fall in the former Seven Ten Lanes. This time, though, they are exploring the world of Southern brunch. Soble originally envisioned a New Orleans-style coffee-and-beignets cafe, but McKenna wanted to expand the menu to include the sort of down-home food his grandmother — the inspiration for Lillie’s Q — cooked for him when he was growing up in South Carolina: grits, hash, chicken and waffles, fried catfish, and his very favorite, country ham seared in a cast iron pan and served with red-eye gravy.
McKenna’s background is in fine dining, which, he says, prepared him to cook anything, but he finds breakfasts, particularly eggs, a special challenge, mostly because of customer expectations. “If people are paying,” he says, “they expect the best, or better than they can do at home. These are things people have been eating all the time, and they can tell the difference.” Even Northerners know what good grits take like now: stone ground and cooked for an hour until they’re creamy, which is how they’re cooked at Roux.
All the pastries, including the beignets, cinnamon rolls, and biscuits, are made in-house. “If we’re going to do it,” says McKenna, “we’re going to make it.” The biscuits are made with White Lily flour, considered essential by Southerners because it has less gluten than other brands, and folded with cold butter, like a croissant, for flaky layers.
The restaurant is intended to be a combination of diner and all-day hangout. Customers can grab coffee at the counter — currently from local roaster Sparrow Coffee, but McKenna hopes to add a New Orleans-style chicory blend — or they can also sit down in the 100-seat dining room for a meal with family or friends or for an all-day session with a laptop. Soble, a longtime Hyde Park resident, is confident the neighborhood will embrace an all-day comfort food spot.
As a consulting chef, McKenna will only be around periodically for training and quality control, but he’s pleased at what he and Soble have created. “This is the sort of challenge that I love,” he says, “to create exceptional food to the best of our ability, something that people really enjoy and want to eat all the time.”
Roux, 1055 E. 55th Street, Open 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.