During a preview of their new restaurant last week, Cecilia Cuff gushed about her chef, Whitney McMorris. Bronzeville Winery is McMorris’s first opportunity as an executive chef after learning under chefs like Moto’s Richie Farina and the late Homaro Cantu. She then absorbed the art of fancy cocktailing at the Aviary, the bar from Alinea Group. McMorris also worked for Billy Lawless and company at Acanto in downtown Chicago.
Those experiences were evident in the courses McMorris and her team brought out during the preview. Bronzeville is home to beloved restaurants such as Honey 1 BBQ and Cleo’s Southern Cuisine, but the neighborhood hasn’t seen dishes with this technical precision. These were beautifully plated dishes with edible flowers, including fried oysters done three ways, a smoked and cured watermelon steak, filet mignon, and ratatouille. McMorris’s highlight, showcasing Asian, French, and Italian influences, was her rendition of fish and chips garnished with trumpet mushrooms, edible flowers (procured at Herban Produce, an urban farm in Garfield Park), and finished with a consomme she poured tableside.
McMorris doesn’t want to alienate customers not accustomed to fancy food, but she also wants to impress all customers, including those who plan special trips to visit Bronzeville. They’ll still have casual items (she’s excited about her wagyu burger) and they’ll eventually add weekend brunch. There’s a comfy couch and lounge furniture for those who just want to come in for a glass of wine or cocktail. They’ll have DJs on the weekends inside the sleek and narrow space. A sidewalk patio is planned for later this summer.
Cuff and partner Eric Williams (a former DJ himself and of Silver Room fame — not Erick Williams of Virtue, though there is a connection) want to give Bronzeville the upscale restaurant locals deserve. The two talk about how amenities like these are taken for granted in other neighborhoods. Logan Square, the West Loop, and Wicker Park are stacked with dining options. Why can’t a single upscale restaurant thrive in Bronzeville?
The community is ready. Most reservations are already booked through June. The occasion is a special one for the South Side, so unique that Mayor Lori Lightfoot plans on attending a ribbon-cutting to mark opening day, Wednesday, April 20.
The South Side’s image as a monolith poses a challenge for opening any restaurant, let alone with a wine list from Derrick Westbrook, the former sommelier at Michelin-starred Elizabeth. Cuff illustrates this point by sharing an anecdote about the interview process for head chef. She says she asked one question to all candidates: “How will you get people to follow you to Cottage Grove?” While North Side restaurants operators complain about difficulty in hiring workers during the pandemic, systematic racism and segregation have repelled a large chunk of the workforce from the South Side of Chicago. One potential hire bluntly told her: “There’s no way I’m going to bring people to Cottage Grove.”
That answer demonstrates the challenges the winery faces, including a lack of investment in Chicago’s South and West sides. It’s a delicate line. Large, white-owned restaurant groups have largely ignored the areas. The result is that residents can feel like they’re not deserving — even as their culture is mined for ideas in and out of kitchens on the North Side. Some of it is disinterest from restaurant groups and some of it is fragility with worries they’ll be hailed as gentrifiers. Instead of waiting for a savior, Williams and Cuff have been doing the work for the last three years with the pandemic delaying the opening. They received $250,000 from the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, a city program dedicated to investment on the South and West sides. While finding investors is integral to any operation, big North Side groups can more reliably depend on their banks. Black entrepreneurs don’t have such stable lifelines.
Williams is the proprietor of the Silver Room, the Hyde Park store that also serves as a de facto Black cultural center. He’s organized events such as the Silver Room Block Party and has an understanding of the various communities that make up the South Side. Eric Williams makes a point to dine at the city’s top restaurants and he brings his children with him. Daughter Sage is so well-versed in the restaurant world that the 13-year-old subbed in as a host when Demera’s Tigist Reda held a fundraiser last year at the Promontory in Hyde Park.
The commute from the South to the North side to dine at upscale restaurants has grown tiring. Exploring another neighborhood is great, but the back-and-forth can build up: “It’s important to have something beautiful on this side of town,” Williams says. “Everyone should have access to this.”
Bronzeville Winery isn’t Williams’s first restaurant; he was also behind Square One in the late ’90s in Wicker Park. But it’s been a while, so Cuff and Williams have turned to a very special advisor: Erick Williams, chef and owner of Virtue, Eater Chicago’s 2019 Restaurant of Year, has made himself available to help. Eric Williams’s daughter laughs when her father chats with the chef. It’s similar to the Spider-Man meme with Spidey pointing at Spidey. It’s that type of mentorship and networking that helped make Bronzeville happen. Cuff says she hopes McMorris, as executive chef, can inspire other Black women. It’s already begun; Sage adores McMorris and hugs her goodbye before she has to leave for bedtime.
Black celebrities have helped make wine more popular in recent years within the community. But for Black Chicagoans on the South Side, the North Side is the only game in town. Enoch Shully at Bin 36 in West Loop ran the only Black-owned wine bar in town before it closed in 2018. Shully now lives near Napa, California, and works at vineyards. It’s not unusual for Black customers to ask him to pose for a photo when they see him as a sign of appreciation.
At Bronzeville Winery, the wine list isn’t female- or BIPOC-focused, something many restaurants started to do in a post-George Floyd world where the industry pushed for more representation. Westbrook didn’t want to force it. For professionals like him, diversity comes naturally: “The wines I put on the list are dope,” he says.
McMorris is handling pastry duties, but eventually they’ll hire a pastry chef for desserts. However, McMorris and drink director Ian Julian (who comes from Fritai, a James Beard-nominated Haitian restaurant in New Orleans) have some sweet beverages, including a Manhattan made with sweet potatoes and bourbon garnished with charred marshmallows.
Cuff and Williams hope their restaurant finds success, which will allow them to apply for another grant so McMorris can open her own restaurant. That would give them the chance to promote a sous chef into McMorris’s current executive chef position. Cuff and Williams are planting the seeds to start their own restaurant group. They cross a big hurdle today as Bronzeville Winery brings South Siders something they deserve.