New owner, same tradition at historical West Side eatery

From Edna's Restaurant to Ruby's

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By LA RISA LYNCH

It was a long tradition of Willie Clark's to grab a bite to eat at Edna's Restaurant in Garfield Park when he was in the area conducting business.

But even after the restaurant changed hands when its namesake, Edna Stewart, died in 2010, Clark still treks from Maywood to eat at the restaurant, now under new management and with a new name: Ruby's. The renamed eatery opened in December 2010.

"It's the same tradition, same flavorful soul food joint," Clark said. "What can I say about it, except the food is excellent."

Though the name has changed, the traditions Stewart created over 40 years still remains. Patrons still have a variety of triple layer cakes to choose from. Her famous buttermilk biscuit are still hot and flakey. Beef short ribs and fried, farm-raised catfish are top sellers on the menu.

That's the way Henry Henderson, the new owner, wanted it when he took over the restaurant after Stewart's family decided not to continue with the business. The restaurant, 3175 W. Madison, has been a West Side staple since 1966, when Stewart and her father opened the business. It was the hangout for residents and became a popular stomping ground for civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King during his brief Chicago stay in 1966.

Henderson, Stewart's longtime produce man, bought the restaurant a few months after her death. While the move felt right to Henderson, his wife, on the other hand, was apprehensive. She didn't want to be bothered with a restaurant but eventually came around, he said.

Some of the restaurant's employees also urged him to buy the business. He changed the name to Ruby's after his late mother, but kept the signage design that's so characteristic of Edna's. Henderson made some cosmetic changes - like the white and pink flowered-painted walls - but holds onto the quality Stewart demanded of her food and service. He kept the same cook and wait staff.

Edna Stewart, he recalls, was meticulous about her food, a trait he still observes. Stewart made "90 percent of her food from scratch," he says. But Henderson added some lighter items, such as a croissant turkey sandwich, pasta dishes and chicken fingers to the menu. He recruited an additional cook from another soul food stable eatery, Caption Hard Times on the South Side. Henderson's kitchen manager, Lilly Jordan, worked under Stewart.

"I say 85 percent of the menu is still of Edna's - same recipes," Henderson said. "I didn't want to take everything from Edna's touch."

Henderson never thought in his "wildest dreams" he would own the restaurant. It seemed such a big feat, he recalled, for someone who grew up in a small Mississippi town. But as he thought about it more, it began to "feel right."

Henderson already knew a little about the business since he would often give Stewart a hand if it got busy in the restaurant. It was out of "love for a friend" that he decided to take it over.

"I thought about what would happen to her legacy," Henderson said. "I think she would have wanted me to do it. I think she would have been proud."

Henderson admitted running a restaurant had a steep learning curve and mistakes were made. But Henderson has no regrets. Now he is focused on a new chapter for the eatery. He wants to build a new restaurant from the ground up and hopes to secure the $500,000 needed for the project.

"That's the next project," Henderson said.

The Enterprize Zone is a regular business feature in Austin Weekly News.

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