This year, Erick Williams brought the James Beards to the South Side when the Oscars of the food world enjoyed a post-gala victory party in June at his restaurant Virtue. The joyous affair that spilled onto 53rd Street after storms knocked out power and left the restaurant without lights or air conditioning.
Now, three months after breaking ground as the first Black chef to win the Beard for Best Chef: Great Lakes, Williams is opening a bar named after his aunt who died during the pandemic (Williams clarifies she did not die of COVID). Daisy’s Po-Boy and Tavern at Harper Court, which opened last week, is the chef’s second Hyde Park restaurant — a third, Mustard Seed Kitchen, is in South Loop.
Daisy’s has a more relaxed atmosphere compared to Virtue. Look past the mask of a James Beard winner opening another venue and customers will find a rarity in Chicago: a Black-owned sports bar. One with nine TVs for fans of the Bulls, Bears, Cubs, White Sox, and Sky. Williams says his new bar will also be great for watching the college basketball’s Final Four, boxing matches, and soccer. Daisy’s won’t be open Sundays, but Williams points out the NFL is more than happy to water-down their product with games on Mondays and Thursdays.
But beyond big games, Williams is happy to open a restaurant where hospitality workers, particularly the industry’s long marginalized Black members, have a place to learn and grow: “We’re building partnership opportunities for young and upcoming entrepreneurs,” he says.
While Virtue gave diners a glimpse of southern cooking through Williams’ perspective, both as a native Chicagoan and as a chef who sponges up history, Daisy’s pays tribute to Aunt Daisy and Uncle Stew, the native Louisianinas who introduced Williams to creole and cajun fare.
Williams spoke about different periods of grief following his aunt’s death; COVID prevented the family from gathering for a funeral. So when the University of Chicago approached him, hoping he would take over the vacant space that Jolly Pumpkin brewpub occupied, Williams saw a chance to honor her memory. But Daisy’s won’t offer a carbon copy of New Oreleans favorites, that’s impossible.
“It’s different, in the north, things changed as we have migrated,” Williams says. “Gumbo’s thinner in the south, seafood is sweeter in the south. There’s no way around it; when you’re on a gulf, near an ocean, you’re going to get the most pristine ingredients you can get your hands on.”
Given Chicago’s frigid winters, the gumbo here needs to provide relief, which is why Daisy’s gumbo uses a roux for a thicker base than its southern counterpart. The intention isn’t to serve cheffed-up versions of classics, but to honor traditions, Williams says. The kitchen is making its own focaccia for the iconic muffaletta. It’s making its own sausage and boudin balls in the kitchen. Williams did make several calls to New Orleans’ Leidenheimer Baking to import baguettes for the po’boys; they might be the company’s only Midwest account. Williams guesses the humidity has a special effect on the soft German wheat used for the sandwiches. There’s also fried chicken with a little bit more zip than the wings Williams has served from Virtue. An alligator dish is coming soon. Daisy’s won’t be a craft beer destination, as Jolly Pumpkin attempted. But they will make a mean hurricane.
At Virtue, the decor is very honest when it comes to reminding diners of the oppression Black Americans have endured, including listing the names of victims of police murders and slayings on the windows. While Williams wanted Daisy’s to have its own vibe, there are still socio-political undertones. Here, art hones in on Mardi Gras and Black Masking Indians, a secret society that dates back before World War II, one that only emerged publically in the 1980s. Williams describes the society as a way Black Americans could participate in Mardi Gras events. The history is complex due to the intermingling between indigenous and Black Americans. One famous example of how history has been mangled in the hospitality world comes from the 2017 Tales of the Cocktail conference.
Forcing diners to think beyond what’s on their plate has become one of Williams’ calling cards, and what’s made his restaurants special. While his food has earned critical acclaim, he wants to force customers to think about their greater role and how history has brought them together.
Virtue was an overnight sensation, Eater Chicago’s 2019 Restaurant of the Year. Williams is bringing that same energy to Daisy’s, but he’s a bit more unrestrained. The decor is even louder.
“I don’t think there’s anything as bright on 53rd Street,” he says. “I’ll be surprised if there’s anything as bright on the South Side.”
And don’t confuse the new restaurant with chef Joe Frillman’s Logan Square pasta palace. Williams is a big fan of Daisies, but feels folks will get over it. Afterall, they’ve managed to decipher the differences between him and Eric Williams, the proprietor of Hyde Park’s own Silver Room, the community-oriented store located a few doors from Virtue.