Georgia Peach cocktail and beef short ribs
Georgia Peach cocktail and beef short ribs Photos: Jeff Marini

It was New Year’s Eve and no one wanted to go home. Virtue, Hyde Park’s popular Southern restaurant, was capping off its first year with a raucous dinner service that fogged up the windows and nearly burst the corner storefront at the seams. While the rest of the block remained dark, people hogged tables in the dining room over gizzards with gravy; four deep at the bar, patrons jostled for another Hurricane. Two hundred forty people joined the party: young and old, black and white, drunk and … slightly less drunk.

Around 1:30 a.m., the staff finally toasted the New Year. “It’s got to be midnight somewhere,” chef-owner Erick Williams told his exhausted team. “Just act like it is here. Because we got to keep cooking.” When the party finally ended, a number of patrons staggered down the street to discounted hotel rooms at the Sophy Hyde Park, with which Virtue had struck a deal to keep tipsy drivers off the road. Happy New Year.

When Virtue opened in November 2018, it sounded like a long shot in a long-shot neighborhood. I live in Hyde Park, where one of our favorite pastimes is complaining about restaurants — the ones we don’t have, and those we do. It’s a tough nut for restaurateurs to crack for a number of reasons, including the picky University of Chicago folks, a diverse population with wide wealth disparities, and the perennial difficulty of drawing diners and employees to the South Side.

As that wild New Year’s party proved, Virtue has solved Hyde Park like no restaurant I’ve seen. Certainly more than Matthias Merges’s estimable yet out-of-place A10, which previously occupied the U. of C.–owned space. Barely three months after signing the lease, Virtue opened, decorated with dangling tobacco baskets alongside Raelis Vasquez’s oil painting of luminaries such as Ida B. Wells and Langston Hughes.

Right away, it was a meteor. Both Esquire and Eater named Virtue one of America’s best new restaurants. The New York Times included Williams in its article “16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America.” New hires relocated from as far away as Rogers Park. And in Hyde Park, Destroyer of New Restaurants, the place draws nearly 100 walk-ins a night.

I watched this rising star in my own backyard warily, mindful of the growing buzz but not convinced. My early meals took too long. The food, while honest, felt unreliable. Hype or no hype, Virtue just didn’t feel ready for a review. But on recent visits, the flavors have clicked into place.

Erick Williams
Erick Williams

I adored Williams’s unfussy touch at MK, where he was in the kitchen for the restaurant’s entire 18-year run and ran it for the last nine, and at Virtue his menu balances the upscale lessons he learned at MK with an ego-free accessibility. In the hands of chef de cuisine Damarr Brown (formerly of Roister), this can mean familiar offerings like shrimp and grits oozing with Wisconsin cheddar or a traditional gumbo harboring piquant andouille chunks in a dark, peppery roux.

Virtue’s best dishes show a lighter touch, as with the flaky blackened catfish that’s accompanied by nutty, chewy Carolina Gold rice with a spritz of lime, smoky barbecued carrots, and carrot purée. Cut into the brown-sugar-glazed salmon fillet and it sinks into a bed of caramelized Brussels sprouts and apricots. The composition of both dishes sends flavors swirling from tangy and sweet to bitter and smoky.

Even the heartier dishes are rarely oppressive. Thick toast spread with creamy chicken liver, plum jam, and mustard seeds is like being tucked into a warm bed on a cold night. The braised beef short ribs are practically candy, every bit as soft as the creamed spinach and crushed potatoes beneath them. While other offerings, like the charcuterie plate with disappointingly dry Southern ham, are more of a rough good-night kiss from your butcher, pastry chef Becky Pendola’s decadent yet delicate pies — especially the vegan coconut cream with oats and slivered almonds — restore the balance.

Williams’s community-minded approach to running a restaurant has been key as well: He’s focused on hiring and mentoring fellow African Americans, and the staff routinely directs overflow customers to other neighborhood spots like the Promontory or Mesler.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to that elusive magic ingredient: an infectiously upbeat vibe that other restaurants strive for but rarely achieve. The customer who sits at the bar three nights a week with his biscuits and glass of Zinfandel feels that magic. So does the family celebrating Grandma’s 90th birthday. The staff feels it, too, like the server who came in two hours early on New Year’s Eve to dust every light fixture.

At all my meals, I’ve found a few constants: perfect golden cornbread with honey butter, crowds of happy people, and unpredictable service. On the best nights, it’s an exhilarating bustle. On the worst, there’s a herky-jerky rhythm that bounces from chaos to comfort to boredom while you wait for dishes. Which means you sometimes get lukewarm shrimp on dried-out fried green tomatoes. During a recent visit, our server was so spacy he seemed to be from another planet, one that orbited some obscure sun at its own inscrutable pace.

Yet I’m always eager to return, and slightly awed by Virtue’s success. Not only have Williams and his team conquered the prickly Hyde Park community, but they’ve tapped into something bigger. The South Side has long been clamoring for a spot like this, and now it seems as if all of greater Chicago has, too. Customers are pouring in from Lincoln Park, Highland Park, and Schaumburg and becoming regulars. As Williams points out, they pass an awful lot of good restaurants on the way.