Chicago Black Restaurant Week: Steeped in history, the event is ever-evolving

This year, dozens of restaurants are taking part in the two-week event running Feb. 12-26, with cuisines spanning from traditional soul to vegan to Cajun to Jamaican to much more.

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Chesaree Rollins, chef and owner of CheSa’s Bistro and Bar, is photographed at her Chicago restaurant earlier this week. The eatery is among the two-dozen scheduled to participate in Chicago Black Restaurant Week.

Chesaree Rollins, chef and owner of CheSa’s Bistro and Bar, is photographed at her Chicago restaurant earlier this week. The eatery is among the two-dozen scheduled to participate in Chicago Black Restaurant Week.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Black History Month brings with it many celebrations of Black culture, including the annual Chicago Black Restaurant Week.

This year, dozens of restaurants are taking part in the two-week event that will take place Feb. 12-26, with cuisines spanning from traditional soul to vegan to Cajun to Jamaican to much more.

Before there was a Black History Month Celebration (officially recognized nationally in 1976), historian Carter G. Woodson had created Negro History Week exactly five decades earlier.

That earlier event was the impetus for publicist Lauran Smith to found Chicago Black Restaurant Week (CBRW) eight years ago.

Smith, also CBRW creative director, told the Sun-Times that the event has changed over the years, and there have been peaks and valleys.

“Word about it seems to spread a lot quicker,” she said. “It’s getting into other states. Even though Black Restaurant Week [takes place] in other states, people are looking to see what happens in Chicago. So it’s grown in the viewership — but, with the restaurants, it’s been up and down, [although] word spreads between restaurants about the event. That’s how business goes. But I’ve been able to acquire partnerships as a result of putting this together.”

Smith also noted that she’s seen a change in the cuisine offerings.

“I’ve seen more healthy dishes,” she said. “There are juice bars and places that offer strictly vegetarian and vegan food. I think all of the [interest in] natural ingredients has changed how people think. It’s, like, ‘Not saying you can’t have soul food every now and then, but let’s try not to fry every night.’ A lot of cooks have been looking to pivot the way that we eat — and a lot of us need to do that. That’s why so many of us have the diseases we have.”

While the event was impacted during the height of COVID, there were only minor bumps in the road, according to Smith.

“During the pandemic, the only thing that was lost was the dine-in aspect. I noticed there was an uptick in delivery, so we utilized the delivery service. I think Chicagoans liked having Chicago Black Restaurant Week during the pandemic, because it [afforded] flexibility. People thought, ‘I can just order some food and still have some Chicago Black Restaurant Week food.’ ”

Smith’s ultimate goal is not just to let people know about the restaurants but to give them the opportunity to explore other neighborhoods.

“You might find a new favorite in Bronzeville or some other neighborhood.,” Smith said. “You never know what you might find.”

One of the businesses taking part in CBRW this year is CheSa’s Bistro & Bar (3230 W. Addison St.), an Avondale restaurant that opened last October and that specializes in gluten-free Cajun and soul offerings. Guests can savor such items as char-broiled Cajun oysters, crispy-skin salmon with sweet potatoes, cheddar jalapeño cornbread, fried honey butter chicken (with donuts!) and blackened lemon-pepper catfish.

Owner Chesa Rollins relied on at least two factors when determining her menu: travel (specifically, to New Orleans) and health.

Regarding the former, “When I was in college, I would spend quite a bit of time in New Orleans with one of my sorority sisters,” she said. “I loved the cuisine. When I opened CheSa’s, I wanted someplace that was unique and different in Chicago but also good. I didn’t want to do [traditional] soul food so I thought of a Creole restaurant.”

As for the health aspect, Rollins said the gluten-free cuisine is a result of her own battle with celiac disease, which she didn’t discover she had until she was pregnant.

“Celiac disease [a reaction to gluten — a protein found in wheat, barley and related grains] is an autoimmune disease of the digestive system,” Rollins said. “When I was pregnant, I was losing my vision, hearing and hair. I was extremely bloated and I had brain fog. I have a Ph.D. in business and my background is in finance, [but] I was having the most difficult time processing information. The disease affects different people in different ways. Once a month, I felt like I had food poisoning — and it was because I had eaten gluten.”

Rollins said that she has seen a gradual shift among her Black patrons when it comes to gluten-free cuisine.

“[It turned out] that a lot of Black people didn’t know that much about gluten and how it affects the body; other nationalities and ethnicities understood,” Rollins said. “So it was challenge to come up with food that was like food that we normally eat but that was gluten-free. I was maybe five years into my food-truck business [that preceded the restaurant] before I started seeing Black people supporting it. They got it.

“When I opened the restaurant, I had a variety of clients. The past couple weeks, it’s been predominantly Black. I was thinking, ‘Wow — the word is getting out.’ It makes me happy because it’s changing the narrative on eating healthier.”

And taking part in Chicago Black Restaurant Week will also help spread the word about CheSa’s, although Rollins said it’s about more than that.

“I believe in what Lauran is doing and the mission of supporting Black businesses,” said Rollins, who added she’s planning specials. “It’s important for us to have the exposure; we need more opportunities to grow and expand our businesses.”

For more on Chicago Black Restaurant Week, visit chiblackrestaurantweek.com. No ticket purchase is required. Just visit one of the participating restaurants (some will be offering CBRW specials), purchase your food/beverage items, and enjoy!

Here’s the most current list of participating restaurants. Check the event website for updates.

— Prazbar
— Tavern on the Row
— Red Star Matteson
— Taste 222
— Bureau Bar South Loop
— Mabe’s Sandwich Sho
— 1308 Chicago
— Hidden Manna Cafe
— Haute Brats
— Haire’s Gulf Shrimp
— Surf’s Up Oak Park
— Tavern On LaGrange
— Luella’s Popcorn
— Bronzeville Soul
— CheSa’s Bistro
— Juiced By Shic
— Sweet Vegan Bakes
— Flammin’ Restaurant
— Meek’s Vegan Kitchen
— The Duplex Chicago
— MiMi’s Tacos & Fries
— Luella’s Southern Kitchen
— Outside The Box Carryout & Catering, Inc.
— The Black Vegan Restaurant

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