The Eisenhower Tower comes upon the unsuspecting motorist suddenly, like a blind date you’d assumed would be much shorter. People don’t associate inner suburbs with high office buildings. And I typically don’t associate Maywood with Bronzeville. The Meal of the Day Café is a surprise within a surprise—a quality that only adds to the restaurant’s many layers.
Situated on the Tower’s fourth floor, at the end of a rather drab, darkened hallway—it felt as if I were walking to a dental appointment, rather than to lunch—Meal of the Day’s interior hit me like a blast of cold air in a heat wave. The restaurant constitutes a single room broken only by a thick concrete beam festooned with decorative lights. Several earthen-hued room partitions add both intimacy and another dimension to the expanse, which, on the day I visited, bathed brilliantly in the light pouring in from wall length windows.
Sit for more than a few minutes in this place and you may begin to sense what I did—that, more than anything perhaps, Meal of the Day is a psychological space. To wander around (which I strongly suggest anyone visiting do) is to explore the emotions and personal narratives of its proprietors.
When I remarked to co-owner Anthony Williams that the room had a distinct Bronzeville aura about it, he told me about his own experience living in proximity to the area. At its height in the 1920s, Bronzeville was Chicago’s Harlem, the Midwest’s ‘Black Metropolis.’ The South Side neighborhood once hosted the likes of Ida B. Wells, Gwendolyn Brooks and Louis Armstrong. Williams and Diggs hopes to replicate that cultural vigor in Maywood. “I want it to mean a lot when people say, ‘Meet me at The Meal of the Day Cafe,'” said Williams
As we talked, rich classical and jazz acoustics wafted from the speakers, interlacing our conversation with even more cultural layers and points of reference. It was a lot to chew on and I’d yet to bite into the food.
Meal of the Day Café is the brainchild of Anthony Williams and Byron Diggs, both of whom have backgrounds in catering. They got the idea to open a restaurant when some Eisenhower Tower tenants they’d known told them about the building management’s idea to open an on-site eatery for the Tower’s clients. The two self-taught chefs latched onto the idea and ran with it.
“When we moved in, it didn’t look anything like this,” Williams said. He and Diggs renovated the space themselves, filling it with furniture that they already owned and that some people donated. In certain respects, they had a solid foundation to work with. The expansive windows and checkerboard floors were here when they came.
The result is an invigorating pastiche—an upright piano anchors a corner space that resembles a living room, replete with a black leather couch and a glass coffee table that’s topped with thick books on art and wine; there are a series of brilliantly-hued paintings by the Ghanaian artist Adana; a whole tribe of African sculptures placed throughout the room; white Chinese paper lanterns suspended over a few fortunate window tables add a multicultural flair.
Given the rich decorative atmosphere, I would have understood if the meal didn’t quite live up to the surroundings. But the food rose to the occasion. Williams said that their decision to put a single meal on the menu each day was motivated both by cost considerations and concerns about freshness. The fastidiousness is well worth the worry. My guest noted that she’s not a regular corn lover, but the corn that she was eating was unlike any corn she’d ever tasted.
“We don’t serve canned products outside of the tomato past,” Williams said. The rolls are homemade, the products of a guarded family recipe. They slice the ham themselves. When I stopped by, on a Thursday, the menu featured baked ham or tamale pie, sweet potatoes, sweet corn or side salad, dinner rolls and yellow cake for dessert. Meals are $7.99. I sampled everything (except the salad) and nothing disappointed.
The tamale pie, though, was the star of the day for me. It had the texture of chili (it was topped with cornbread) with a mild southwestern kick. Tex-Mex meets Soul Food—a combination that channeled the restaurant’s eclectic and experimental vibe. I can easily imagine Meal of the Day transplanted inside DuSable Museum or one of Bronzeville’s many black-owned art galleries and cultural centers.
I asked William how he thought the community has received his restaurant in the two years it’s been open. He had no complaints. “Our relationship with the Village has been exceptional,” he said. In fact, on my way inside, I saw the current Village clerk, Gary Woll, leaving. He recommended the tamale pie.
The Meal of the Day Café (1701 S. First Ave. – Eisenhower Tower) is open Tuesday through Friday, 11am to 5pm. Call (708) 223-8153 for more information about holding your next event or attending an upcoming event at the Café. Call (773) 318-4217 for more information on how you can acquire their catering services. Upcoming events hosted at the restaurant include a Mother’s Day Brunch on May 12 and a recurring After-Work Jazz Sessions in the summer.