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South Side soul food legend Army & Lou’s closes

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

It was the late Mayor Harold Washington’s favorite restaurant — the booth where he always sat still bears his name. And its storied history goes beyond feeding the grass-roots political movement that elected the city’s first black mayor.

At its original Black Metropolis location, it fed the leader of another movement: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the ’60s.

But South Side soul-food legend Army & Lou’s, 422 E. 75th St., thought to be the oldest black-owned restaurant in the Midwest, closed its doors for the last time Sunday.

“It’s really just due to the economy. People are not eating out as much,” said one of the five partners, Goldie McDuffie. “We had to close. We’ll see what happens in the future.”

For 65 years, Army & Lou’s has fed celebrities, politicians, business moguls and others who slid into its red linen-tableclothed booths for greens and ham hocks, catfish, chitterlings and peach cobbler. Celebs ranged from Cab Calloway to Muhammad Ali to former U.S. Sen. Charles Percy.

Washington, a bachelor, would eat there up to three times a week, and was partial to just about everything, longtime staff like waitress Betty Martin recall.

“We made everything from scratch,” McDuffie boasts.

Supporters are rallying to reopen the second black-owned restaurant of historical significance to call it quits in the past six months.

Edna’s, a West Side institution at 3175 W. Madison for 44 years closed in August after the death of namesake Edna Stewart.

“Her daughter was looking at her expenses and the income and they weren’t meeting in any kind of way,” Stewart’s brother, Sam Mitchell, Jr., explained.

Alicia Spears, executive director of the area’s Business and Economic Revitalization Association, lamented that lack of community support is affecting many small businesses.

“They need funds. They need willing parties to commit to use of the site. They need consistent support,” she said. “Since many African-Americans now live north of 63rd Street, they don’t want to come south. This is such a sad commentary after we fought and died for integration. Will we have any viable, trendy upscale black businesses after this recession?”

Home of to-die-for fried chicken, Army & Lou’s was originally opened by William and Luvilla Armstrong in 1945, in the historic Black Metropolis neighborhood, now Bronzeville, where most blacks coming north during the Great Migration settled.

The couple brought missed southern cooking to the relocated Southerners. The restaurant at 39th & Indiana was a frequent haunt of big-name musicians playing area jazz clubs.

“It was a fine dining establishment, and the first place that a lot of middle-class African-American families back then were taking their children where there were linen tablecloths and napkins, and there was live music,” McDuffie recounted.

Army & Lou’s relocated to its current site in the 1970s, following a different migration: Chatham was where many middle-class and affluent blacks were moving then.

It was bought in 1973 by another husband-wife team, Mary and Charles Cole, who retired and sold it in 1987. It flailed a little, then its last owner, Dolores Reynolds, purchased it with two partners in 1992. Two years later, tragedy struck. One of the partners was murdered at the restaurant by a former employee, and Reynolds was left running the restaurant on her own, until a year ago, when a group of younger investors bought in.

“We tried to rejuvenate the business,” said McDuffie. “Things started tapering off probably in May, but we held on. Then we just couldn’t hold on anymore.”

On its final weekend, regulars turned out for a farewell celebration, listening to live jazz with their favorite meals on Friday and Saturday, and enjoying the famous Sunday buffet.

“Everybody who is anybody in this town has been to Army & Lou’s. I’m very attached to this restaurant. My mother used to take me from a very young age,” said longtime regular CeCe Edwards, who is working with groups like Park Manor Neighbors and the Chatham Avalon Community Council to find help for the owners. “It’s very emotional.”

Longtime waitress Betty Martin was too overwrought to come in the last weekend.

”It was really sad. Our regulars came, including two guys who used to go to the original Army & Lou’s. They stayed ‘till long past closing. They were distraught,” McDuffie said. “But we expected more people, and that was just really confirmation that it was just time. Maybe when we’re gone, people will feel a longing for the business and then want it back. But right now, the support is just not there.”

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