While other businesses fled the West Side in the aftermath of the 1968 riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Edna Stewart stayed.
“It changed when we had the riot,” Stewart recalled in a 2007 interview published in Austin Weekly News. “Everything just burned down. On Kedzie [Street] all of the businesses burned. There wasn’t a business left on that block at all.”
Stewart recalled that her restaurant at Kedzie and Madison was one of only two businesses in the area to survive. Her business had only been open for two years. Nearly 45 years later, Edna’s Restaurant has remained a staple in the community. On Friday, its matriarch – and that of the West Side – lost her long battle with cancer.
Ms. Edna died at age 72 from ovarian cancer; she was first diagnosed with the disease in 2008. Her birthday was a few days ago.
She started the restaurant at 3175 W. Madison in 1966 with her late father, Samuel Mitchell, with just $700. The East Garfield Park eatery is still one of the few black-owned businesses in that community. Since its start, it’s been a haunt for community leaders as well as residents.
Edna’s was a meeting place for civil rights leaders, including Dr. King and Jesse Jackson, and continues to the place of choice for elected leaders today, including U.S. Rep. Danny Davis and West Side state Sen. Rickey Hendon.
Earlier this year, Gov. Pat Quinn honored her by declaring Feb.19 Edna Stewart Day. Over the weekend, her workers were left to mourn the woman many saw as a mother than a boss.
“It is devastating. I hate to even think about it,” said Bessie Tucker, Edna’s head cook. “She was such a wonderful person and we are going to miss her. I’m going to still be doing her biscuits and her macaroni – that is what she would want. I will carry on her legacy. Edna was not only a special person for Chicago’s West Side, she was a special lady for the world. I worked for Edna for 20 years, and it has been a joy to know her.”
Her restaurant was usually packed, especially on Sundays after many West Siders attended church services. The large glass windows allowed for view into most of the restaurant from the Madison Street sidewalk. There was still the large jukebox inside playing gospel, classic R&B and blues music. The food wasn’t the only drawing card, though Ms. Edna touted her biscuits as “the best biscuits on earth.”
People came to hang out, talk and occasionally dish up some friendly gossip about on goings in the community. Edna’s attracted many people. In 2006, when then-Sen. Barack Obama wanted to meet with community media outlets to discuss business needs in the community, he chose Edna’s to meet for breakfast.
While so many newer restaurants in the area are stand-up eateries with no seating, Edna’s is where you can go to sit down and have a meal. In her 2007 interview, Ms. Edna recalled how bustling and vibrant the neighborhood was business-wise when she first opened.
“Forty years ago, Madison Street was booming,” she said. “There wasn’t a vacant spot nowhere. We had big stores – jewelry stores, doctors’ offices, grocery stores. You name it, we had it.”
Ms. Edna also hired former inmates, something that’s now being done and promoted by newer businesses, community groups and politicians. She sometimes would greet customers at the door and might be sitting at a table near her front entrance, talking with a customer or friend – sometimes they were both.
Community members can only hope that the restaurant will live on, serving up good food and fond memories like Ms. Edna did for nearly a half century.
On serving Dr. King and other Civil Rights activists:
“Dr. King was always, you know, we were glad to see him come to Chicago. I mostly catered when I started with the Civil Rights workers, and we used to wait for them to come back from when they were out picketing, and we were real busy.”
On her famous “Best Biscuits on Earth”:
“Because we put a lot of love in our biscuits, we take a lot of time and patience with them, and I have a few secrets.”