Martin Luther King ate there; so did Smokey Robinson and politicians of all races who hoped to appeal to the black vote. For African-Americans growing up in Chicago in the 60s, 70s and 80s, Army & Lou's was often the first "nice" place at which you ate, and the first one where you saw live music. Opened in 1945 by a Chicago Defender employee named William "Army" Armstrong and his wife Louvella, it was long one of the most iconic restaurants on the black South Side. But by last year it had closed, a victim of changing tastes toward healthier food than traditional soul food, the shift of the area's commercial activity toward Hyde Park and a general feeling that its time was past. Now a developer plans to reopen it this summer as a blues-themed restaurant with an updated look and menu— and to expand its celebrated brand name beyond the stretch of 75th street where it has been since the 1960s.
Claude Jones has been involved in real estate and finance in Chicago for several years, but his family has had restaurant businesses in California. He was interested in Army & Lou's because of its history— and interested in a food business venture because "You can be creative with concepts. There's opportunity there that doesn't exist in other parts of the real estate business right now." What he sees for Army & Lou's is a blues-themed restaurant featuring live music and memorabilia— "Still a family style restaurant, but we can be creative and more modern about it, liven up the decor."
He knows he's treading a fine line between honoring a beloved place's memory but reinventing it in a way that draws new, more health-conscious customers who had stopped going by the time Army & Lou's shut down in early 2011. "Things are just different now," he says. "We'll focus on the things they did well. The desserts will still be made from scratch. It will have soul food, and Southern comfort food generally, but a healthier menu overall. To use the cliché, we're going to bring it into the 21st century." One supporter of what he's doing, he says, is Delores Reynolds, who owned the restaurant during the 1990s and 2000s and likewise made changes then to keep up with the times.
Jones is talking to the Chicago Blues Museum about displaying part of its collection on the premises. The "Museum" is more of a collection owned by historian/collector Gregg Parker at this point and has put on shows at various institutions around town. Jones says "He's got memorabilia and photos and movies of our blues history that no one's seen." He's also looking at expanding beyond 75th street— "We'll definitely start with a satellite location downtown, offering our kind of food in the Loop."
He says he's close to announcing a chef and on track to open around June. "I looked at a lot of different restaurants before settling on Army & Lou's. It's one that will have a really strong brand when it's fixed," Jones says. "I'm excited about bringing it back stronger than ever."