Eldridge Williams’s restaurant, The Delta, pays homage to his southern roots. A Memphis native, Williams found his way to Chicago 15 years ago and his story of the Mississippi Delta is told through a taste of the South that manages to stand out in Chicago’s vibrant food scene.
Located in Wicker Park, the Delta warmly welcomes guests with a vibe that feels both homey and current. Vintage knick-knacks placed alongside an assortment of textiles and patterns complement a hodgepodge of framed photos that flow along the walls to remind us of what this place is all about.
“To have a concept called the Delta, and to have a concept of its culture, it was very important that we dug deep, went there and got a firsthand experience to what it means to have a Delta-inspired restaurant.”
The Delta’s signature dish is the red hot tamale. Chicago has a revered tamale culture of its own, but the red hot, while generations old, is a welcomed addition to the Windy City. Williams and executive chef-partner, Adam Wendt, have found a way to make a tasty bundle of cornmeal (“cush” on the menu), brisket, spices and red sauce, their own. Served with saltines, the Delta way, of course. Other menu items include a rotation of non-traditional tamales, including the Jim Shoe, an ode to the classic South Side Chicago sandwich; large format cocktails; pork belly fried rice, a nod to the Delta’s large Chinese population; and a stellar burger which has been dubbed by many as the best burger in Chicago.
"One of the things I told myself at the beginning of this project was, ‘When you take away the food and the beverage, what do you have?’ It has to mean more,” Williams explains. “[We] give people a little history, culture and good food at the same time."
Williams got his start in the food and beverage industry as a dishwasher at a BBQ restaurant at the age of 14. “Dishwasher, busboy, barback, host, server, bartender, front of house,” he lists, “I’ve done everything.” But it was years later, while working as a manager at Chicago’s well-known Girl and the Goat when Williams’s lightbulb moment struck. “I realized that was the last place I was going to work. It’s a tough industry — it takes a lot out of you and very seldomly gives back. So you have to find your happy place, and I wasn’t going to find that working for other people. I had all these ideas inside of me.” With decades of experience under his belt, Williams was ready for the next and biggest step in his food and beverage career — ownership.
Access to capital is often a very real and major hurdle for black women and men looking to gain entry into the industry as a restaurant-owner. But for Williams, his solid network along with significant experience at high-profile restaurants made that a non-issue and validated advice that he offers aspiring food and beverage professionals: “Always do a good job. No matter what you’re doing, excel at it. It is going to pay off at some point. It may not pay off while you’re in it, but at some point, it’s going to pay off,” Williams says. And also, “Don’t ever burn a bridge. You never know when you may need someone’s help.” Williams also notes that it doesn’t hurt to be respectful to others and to be well-liked.
Williams is acutely aware of the responsibilities that come with being a black restaurant owner, and that includes overriding some of the stereotypes that black-owned restaurants are frequently labeled with such as operations and service not being up to par. “I wanted to breakup the perceived notion of what it is to be a black restaurant owner.”
Finding the right people that will help carry out Williams’s vision is crucial to the restaurant’s success and Williams firmly believes, “It starts with the people. Everyone that’s employed here, especially my key players, I’ve known for years and I’ve worked with them in the past. They’re about the culture, the brand, they value hard work. I look at them as my peers.” He says, “I don’t even like the term ‘boss.’ Bosses react, leaders are proactive. I want to inspire you and make you a better person.”
Williams has many more ideas on future restaurant concepts for his budding restaurant group, G.O.O.D. Pineapple, Inc., and he’s got his eyes set on a couple of other prizes, too. “I want to be the first black restaurateur in Chicago to win a James Beard award. I want a Michelin star.”