If you did not hazard a visit to the Rathskeller on Prospect Avenue, then it's impossible for you to comprehend the astonishing transformation that befell that address. In place of the bleak fortress-like facade now sit expansive windows that reveal to all that this no longer is a spot one needs to avoid out of fear for personal safety. In fact, Chicago's Home of Chicken & Waffles gets so busy at times that we've seen a line of folks waiting for a table extend clear outside and onto the sidewalk.
Granted, that was on a Friday night when the Cavs were playing down the street, but this joint jumps on other nights as well. We slid into an oversized booth on another weekend night just as the live jazz ensemble began to play. From our cushy faux alligator-skin perch we could really appreciate the stylish interior, which appears considerably larger than it used to. Glass-bubble chandeliers around the room add a pleasant firefly effect, and the avocado green furniture upholstery feels fresh and modern. A raised lounge area across from the bar is a sweet little spot to wait with a drink, especially when there's a ballgame on the wall-size screen.
Step into Chicago's Home and you'll be met with the customary "Welcome to our home" greeting, a sentiment that was imported, like the concept, from the Windy City, where two other spots exist. Owner Tonya Johnson opened the first restaurant a decade ago in the South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville.
Unlike the space, the cuisine is decidedly unpretentious, the kind of soul food your grandmother would make is how Johnson describes it. That might be the reasoning behind the table settings, which stand in stark contrast to the room. While no expense was spared on the interior design, diners eat off cafeteria-style plastic plates with tinny silverware while sipping from plastic Coca-Cola branded glasses and dabbing their faces with paper napkins.
We noticed a considerable beefing up of the staff between early and subsequent visits, with literally dozens of employees attending to guests. The effort is there, if not always the execution. Meals can get a little hectic and disorganized, with dishes coming to the table with the orderliness of a shotgun blast. But I rest the blame for that less on the staff than on the menu, which has more moving parts than a mechanical timepiece. A simple entree can consist of five separate plates when you take into account salad, main, sides and accoutrements.
Chicken and waffles, for example, arrive on separate plates. Diners can get pretty much any combination of white and/or dark meat, with prices ranging from $10 to $20 depending. We thought the fried chicken was excellent — hot, crispy and juicy. The waffles, despite being hot, arrived pale, soft and especially chewy. They come topped with whipped butter and accompanied by maple syrup and hot sauce. Diners can also swap the chicken for a pair of crisp, mild tasting catfish filets ($14.50).
For people who struggle with decision making, this menu can be maddening. There are nearly 10 different categories, each with multiple dishes, each of which have numerous possible iterations. "Soul Food Specials" come with your choice of fried or grilled catfish, fried white or dark meat chicken, grilled boneless thighs or grilled salmon. Then there's the sides: choose three from a list of eight. Now, do you want that smothered with gravy and onions? In place of chicken and waffles one night I went with the Mr. Beckham's (all dishes have proper nouns), boneless grilled thighs ($15.50) smothered in gravy, served over rice, and paired with a side salad and fluffy biscuit. I did not regret my decision.
Not that you need them, but Chicago's Home does not sell appetizers. The closest they come is the long list of side dishes and the bar menu, which has items like breakfast sliders, macaroni balls and the tempting "flaming gizzards," but is available at the bar only. While waiting for our companions one night, we ordered home fries with gravy ($5) and fried chicken livers ($9) to tide us over. The potatoes were neither hot nor crispy. The deep-fried livers were very hot, very crispy and very overcooked, at least if you prefer them to be blush-colored and creamy.
There's been some grumbling about the check-payment method, which is done Square-like in real time on a tablet. Servers hand over the device for a signature and tip percentage, sometimes walking away to offer privacy, others not. I feel that if you're embarrassed about the tip amount, maybe it's inappropriate. And if it is on the low side, perhaps offer the server the benefit of an explanation.