One of the great milestones in the life of a celebrity is the opening of a restaurant. Theaster Gates reached that point in June when the Currency Exchange Café opened in Washington Park, next door to the Arts Incubator he developed last year as part of the Arts + Public Life Initiative at the University of Chicago.
Except that Gates is not a regular Planet Hollywood-style celebrity. The Currency Exchange Café is, in a way, a continuation of his 2012 Soul Food Pavilion installation, at which he hosted a series of dinners, and part of his ongoing project to bring art to the south side.
The interior of the cafe is recognizably a Gates project: it’s decorated with salvaged pieces, including signs from its former incarnation as, yes, a currency exchange. The menu, however, doesn’t embrace soul food with the same fervor as the Soul Food Pavilion. Yes, there are buttermilk biscuits and a daily “soul bowl” and most dishes come with beans, greens, and rice on the side, but there are also pancakes and breakfast sandwiches, chili, and an array of tacos. It’s not fancy, but it tastes homemade—well, if there happens to be a really good cook in your home.
And ultimately, is it more important that there be shrimp and grits and chitlins or that the Currency Exchange Café exists at all—a place with good coffee and a comfortable couch and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves (with a really excellent selection, by the way) and a big window looking out onto Garfield Boulevard? Even on the north side, it would be a remarkably welcoming spot, an excellent place to spend an afternoon. On the south side, where there are no other spots like it, it’s a necessity. I was really happy to see that it was busy on the afternoon I visited, and that it appeared to have drawn customers not just from the immediate neighborhood, but also from Hyde Park. Even better, it’s just off the Garfield stop on the Green Line, just 20 minutes from the South Loop.
Currency Exchange Café, 305 E. Garfield, 773-855-9163, cexcafe.com