Growing up in South Carolina, so much of my own life was surrounded by a culture of food. Southern hospitality is a real thing, and for most of us who were raised in the Deep South, our fondest memories come from family gatherings with recipes often handed down for generations. For well-respected Chicago Chef Erick Williams, this culture of hospitality has served as an inspiration for one of the most exciting new restaurant openings in the Chicago area – Virtue.
Virtue is located at 1462 E 53rd Street at the intersection of S. Harper Avenue in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Williams, formerly the Executive Chef of celebrated restaurant MK, and partner of Michelin rated County barbeque is at the core of this exciting concept. Alongside Williams in the restaurant is business partner and former General Manager and Wine Director of MK, Jesus Garcia.
The entire concept of Virtue centers on a culture of hospitality with an incredible amount of detail chosen to showcase American southern flavors and highlight Williams’ respect of his upbringing. The menu is full of family recipes, traditional southern cooking, and Williams’ own interpretation of famous dishes of the south.
“Virtue is my opportunity to share my story and the way that food resonates with the values and virtues that have helped to shape my life,” says Williams. “As a concept, I want Virtue to recognize my ancestors’ struggles and commitment to freedom and especially their spirit of hope. Without their faith, I would not have a place to explore or follow my ambitions and for that I am forever grateful.”
The restaurant evokes the warmth of Williams’ great grandmother’s home from the warm lighting and woven patterns to the china plating and meaningful artwork on the walls. An unbelievable amount of honesty, kindness and love fills the space and provides guests the chance to be noticed, mattered and valued. The Virtue team places attention to detail in service, timing and most importantly how to make people feel great. My guest noted that he felt like he was in an upscale restaurant but not in the least pretentious. Everything is designed to make the diner feel comfortable and welcome.
The menu is divided into sections that Williams has titled “rations.” The smaller rations are appetizer portions – easily shareable. The large rations are main courses, and the extra rations are the sides, including some traditional Southern comfort foods that he called “leisurely” rations. On a recent visit, my guest and I were able to sample something from every portion of the menu, and there was not a single moment that either of us was not thoroughly delighted at the meal. As you may guess, I am a hard judge of any restaurant that claims to be “Southern,” and I can honestly say that Virtue is the best and most authentic of all the Southern-themed restaurants I have tried in the Chicago area.
We sampled several traditional Southern items – for me the “acid test” of whether I was going to like Virtue. Everything was spot on. The collard greens are one of Chef’s secret family recipes flavored with smoked turkey and cooked to perfection. Cornbread can be created either sweet or more savory in the South, and Williams has opted for the sweeter version served with honey butter – also cooked to perfection. Also on the menu, be sure to sample the biscuits with pimento cheese and an item that no Southern restaurant should be without – grits and cheddar cheese.
In a nod towards more New Orleans style dishes, Williams has created some superb dishes. The gumbo was perfectly seasoned for me – just spicy enough to give a little kick without crossing that line of heat that always makes me unhappy when it happens. The fried green tomatoes are served with a lovely shrimp remoulade, and the shrimp are not tiny. This side is certainly one that should be shared, else it could be half a meal on its own. Finally, I was delightfully surprised at the tasty and tender chicken gizzards served with dirty rice. I had no idea that gizzards could be cooked so well, as my personal experience has always been somewhat negative with that particular item. You should definitely try them.
For main courses (large rations), the three that stand out for me are the enormous pork chop (served with cider-braised apples and yams), the slow-cooked beef short ribs (served with creamed spinach and potatoes), and the blackened catfish (served with Carolina gold rice and barbeque carrots). Clearly, Williams came from a family like mine where portion sizes were gargantuan. After all, nobody should ever leave a Southern table still hungry. I can attest, with all three of these entrees you will be more than satiated and will likely ask for a ‘to go’ container.
Equally well-curated is the intriguing cocktail list which divides the libations into categories including “Light” “Strong” and “Alcohol Free.” For a light option, try the Weekend at Nana’s featuring gin, lemon, rosemary and orange bitters. For a stronger option, check out Patience is a Virtue which combines Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula Cognac, Averna, pear liqueur and barrel-aged bitters. On the alcohol free side, one of the best is the Duke of Earl which blends earl grey tea, star anise, lemon and egg white together for a nod of southern hospitality.
Virtue is located at 1462 E 53rd Street at the intersection of S. Harper Avenue in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. The restaurant is open for dinner five days a week and will be launching lunch and weekend brunch soon. Current hours are Wednesday and Thursday: 5:00 – 10:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday: 4:30 – 11:00 p.m.; Sunday: 5:00 – 11:00 p.m.; closed Monday and Tuesday.
Photos of the interior and exterior of the restaurant courtesy of Barry Brecheisen
Chef Erick’s headshot and the food photography courtesy of Gary Adcock / Studio37 (@garyadcock)