By AARON GETTINGER
Virtue, chef Erick Williams’ much-anticipated new spot serving Southern fine dining, had a ribbon-cutting ceremony this evening and is now open for business with regular hours.
“We’re really, really proud to bring not just the name ‘Virtue’ but the idea of hospitality and kindness to the forefront of this community,” Williams said. “We couldn’t find a better place to have the opportunity to enjoy diversity and celebrate that in a space where people have space, where they have an opportunity to kick up their feet and enjoy ‘delicious’ — from our heritage, from our culture, from our history to our tables.”
Williams was joined by Hyde Park–Kenwood’s City Council members, Ald. Sophia King (4th) and Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) as well as officials from the University of Chicago and Diane Burnham of the South East Chicago Commission.
“This is a pleasure for me to welcome you into the community,” said King. “You not only come into our community as someone who knows and understands community, but you’re breathing life into this corner.”
“We wish you the best of luck for this year and many to come, and I’m just proud to you not only a friend but a constituent as well as a business owner,” she said.
The restaurant, 1462 E. 53rd St., is divided into a dining room and bar, where white walls and restrained, discerning paintings have replaced former tenant A10’s vibrant interior palette. Beverage service include wines sources from around the world ($5 to $12 by the glass, bottles $32 to $120), beers on tap and in bottles and a variety of craft cocktails like the “Weekend at Nana’s” with gin, lemon, rosemary and orange bitters ($11) and the “Sweet Thang” with three types of rum, lime and cane sugar ($11).
The menu is divided into “small ration” appetizers like Southern ham with pepper jelly and crackers ($12), “large ration” entrees like blackened catfish with Carolina gold rice ($23) and a half chicken with collard greens and rutabaga ($24) and “extra ration” sides like biscuits and pimento cheese ($6).
Guests sipped sparkling wine as waiters circulated hors d’oeuvres after the ribbon cutting. Williams introduced his business partner, Jesus Garcia, who formerly worked alongside him as general manager and wine director of MK, the River North restaurant where they worked before it closed in 2017.
“When Erick first came to me with the idea of working together in a space, obviously the first thing that came out of my mouth was, ‘Yes, chef,’” he said. “I felt comfortable in who he was as a chef, as a businessman, as a friend, but the also reason why I said yes so fast was because of what he represents. He represents progress.”
“I left a great opportunity, which I did knowing that I did the right choice,” Garcia continued. He paraphrased Chicago Tribune critic Phil Vettel’s rave review of Virtue, published today: “When news of Williams’ project first came to light, I speculated that Virtue might prove to be not only a very good restaurant, but also an important one. I consider myself one-for-one in predictions for 2019.”
U. of C. Vice President for Civic Engagement and External Affairs Derek R.B. Douglas thanked all the parties that had brought Virtue to Hyde Park.
“When A10 decided to close, there was a big question in the community about what’s going to happen next: Can restaurants survive? Is Hyde Park a place where you can make it or not?” he asked. “And so we felt at the University that these were high stakes for us. We had to get the right chef. We had to get the right concept. We had to bet on the right person to make this happen.”
“And when we heard that Erick was interested, we went full board on that,” Douglas said. He noted that Williams had been a hard negotiator but that, at the end of the day, they wanted the same thing.
“We want something that’s positive for the community,” he said. “If we keep that at the forefront, we’ll get something done. And so we were able to get the deal done. I had high hopes for Virtue, and Erick has already exceeded those.”
Virtue is open on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. and on Fridays and Saturdays from 4:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. and accepts reservations.
Look for a Herald interview with Williams on Thursday online and in the Jan. 16 print edition.