“Thank you for sixty years of support,” reads a white placard heading each table at Soul Queen, an all-you-can-eat soul food restaurant located at the intersection of 90th Street and Stony Island Ave. in the neighborhood of Calumet Heights. Soul Queen moved to its current location in 1975 and it seems that little has changed since then. The paint on Soul Queen’s hand-painted sign is chipped and faded. It reads “Soul food for all souls” and depicts the Soul Queen’s majestic profile, overlain with a calligraphic “S. Q.” Many of the light bulbs trimming parts of the sign are burned out or missing.
Inside, Naugahyde upholstery in maroon, cream, and glittery silver date Soul Queen several decades in the past. Just inside the entrance hangs a faded portrait of Helen Anglin, the Soul Queen herself, decked in fine clothing. In the next room, a massive buffet holds staples of soul food: fried chicken, fried chicken with gravy, fried catfish, macaroni and cheese. Sweet potatoes and collard greens provide some vitamins and keep a diner’s blood pressure held in delicate balance. For dessert, peach cobbler and sweet potato pie. On a Friday evening, Soul Queen’s massive dining area is sparsely populated and deathly quiet. Through the silence I can hear a man at the table next to me commenting on the food. He is nonplussed. He is “disappointed”; the food is “tasteless.” Luckily, for situations such as this, each table comes equipped with a giant bottle of hot sauce. The man liberally douses his chicken and digs in.
Photographs hung on the walls suggest that Soul Queen once saw more prosperous days. Once a hub of community activism, Soul Queen attracted a great deal of celebrity traffic. Faded and coated with shellac, the photos depict Helen Anglin posing with many high profile guests, including Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton, and Mr. T. Newspaper clippings from the Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune are framed and hung on the walls. They date up until the 1990s and sing praises of Soul Queen. In the dim light of today’s Soul Queen, they are difficult to read.