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Gladys’ Restaurant On 87th Street Is Honoring A Bronzeville Soul Food Legend One Dish At A Time

Angela McGowan opened her restaurant as a tribute to Gladys Holcomb, the owner of Gladys Luncheonette: "I am trying to honor her and do it in a way that would make her proud."

Angela McGowan, owner of Gladys’ Restaurant, 1225 E. 87th St., poses for a photo in her restaurant on March 22, 2022.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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MARYNOOK — Gladys’ Luncheonette in Bronzeville charmed locals, celebrities and politicians for nearly half a century.  

Aretha Franklin, Redd Foxx and Martin Luther King Jr. were among its loyalists. Negro League players stopped by for smothered chicken, peach cobbler and buttery biscuits.

Owner, head cook and namesake Gladys Holcomb hung up her hat in 1996. She died in 2003, and the restaurant at 4527 S. Indiana Ave. was demolished in 2012. But Holcomb’s legacy has a new life through Angela McGowan, who assumed the rights to the restaurant’s name and opened Gladys’ Restaurant a few miles south of the original.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Gladys’ Restaurant, 1225 E. 87th St., on March 22, 2022.

Gladys’ Restaurant, 1225 E. 87th St., is similar to the restaurant that inspired it, but it’s not a replica, McGowan said. The recipes are hers, made largely from scratch and derived from her family traditions.

The restaurant took nearly 15 years to come to fruition. After heartbreak, divorce, love and loss, McGowan said she finally felt prepared to launch in 2021, creating a space that honors Holcomb — “the GOAT” — and stands alone as a destination for good food and greater hospitality.

“This restaurant isn’t about me; it’s about the name on this building,” McGowan said. “This building has Gladys’ name on it, but it is not standing in her shoes, following her or trying to replicate her. I am trying to honor her and do it in a way that would make her proud.” 

‘I Want People To Feel Like They’re Home’

McGowan learned to cook in her grandmother’s kitchen on 82nd and Kenwood, taking notes as the matriarch made sour cream pound cake and dinner rolls.

“Food is the only thing that you can do that gives someone instant gratification,” McGowan said. “You don’t have to wait for it. I loved that feeling.”

McGowan married and moved to Italy in the late 1990s, perfecting her Chicago recipes in her European kitchen. She took advantage of the culinary scene and dined at restaurants renowned for their hospitality, she said. One restaurant owner took her under his wing to help her learn more about the business.

“The owner told me that he would teach me how to make bruschetta if he could teach me about hospitality,” McGowan said. “I love the hospitality industry because it’s not about food; it’s about the experience.”

McGowan came back to Chicago in 2006 — and a chef and close friend called her with a life-changing offer. 

“He told me that a family member of Gladys [Holcomb] told him that he should reopen the restaurant,” McGowan said. “He told the family member, ‘I’m not that ambitious, but I know someone that could do it.'”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A photo of the old Gladys’ Restaurant in Bronzeville is on display in the new restaurant on March 22, 2022.

McGowan said she knew the legacy behind Holcomb’s name. Growing up, she was among those who sat at one of the restaurant’s round kitchen tables and enjoyed fried fish and spaghetti.

McGowan decided to take on the challenge, she said. She acquired the naming rights in 2007, but it took years of “experiencing life” before she felt she was ready to revive the name, McGowan said. 

“But as I went through all of that, it made me want this restaurant even more. It became more than about me. In my mind, I thought that if I did this, it had to be bigger and better than it ever has been before,” McGowan said. “Once I started, I couldn’t stop.

“This is all about her and making sure no one forgets. This is her statue. It’s an honor to do it.”

McGowan wakes up at 6 a.m. every day to source the meat for her smothered pork chops and salmon croquettes. She makes her chicken breading and flaky biscuits from scratch. She cooks everything except the short-order items, she said. 

But the recipes aren’t the same as Holcomb’s. Unlike Gladys’ Luncheonette, she offers alcohol. And when guests ask for old menu items like brain and eggs — a mixture of fried pork brains and scrambled eggs — McGowan utters a swift, “No.”

Where you can find a piece of the old Gladys is in the hospitality, McGowan said. 

“I want people to feel like they’re home,” McGowan said. “I want to know their name when they walk through the door.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Gladys’ Restaurant, 1225 E. 87th St., on March 22, 2022.

Already, guests have arrived and reminisced about what once was, McGowan said. 

During the height of the pandemic, McGowan often held repast services for families in the community. Amidst their grief, loved ones always had a heartwarming story to share about Holcomb’s business, McGowan said.

Those stories have shown McGowan she is living her true purpose, she said. 

“A lot of families have been decimated by COVID and loss, but when they come in, they remember when they would go to Gladys’ with their grandmother and the Negro league players would be there,” McGowan said.

“You listen to the stories and, just for a little while, they’re OK. They’ve forgotten all about what has happened. It reminds them of a time when everything was alright. Can you imagine your name making people feel good?” 

For now, McGowan is enjoying the fruit of her labor at Gladys’ Restaurant, she said. The community finally has a sit-down eatery where neighbors can gather and enjoy their food. Gov. JB Pritzker and the Rev. Jesse Jackson have stopped by, she said. 

McGowan will continue running the restaurant until she feels it’s time to end it, she said — but even after that, the name will live on.

“There are times when I run out of physical gas, but I get up and I keep going,” McGowan said. “You have to be a part of something that’s bigger than yourself. It has to be something that will not allow you to compromise. There is no compromise here. I’m just trying to make her proud.” 

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Angela McGowan, owner of Gladys’ Restaurant, 1225 E. 87th St., poses for a photo in her restaurant on March 22, 2022.

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