Best of the South Side 2008: Grand Crossing & Chatham

In some ways, Grand Crossing and adjacent Chatham are like a case study in urban history. Both were originally settled by European immigrants working on the railroads and, later on, in factories. Both neighborhoods prospered during the first half of the 20th century. And starting in the 1950s, both were integrated; but here is where the two diverge. Grand Crossing saw a typical case of white flight, blockbusting by corrupt realtors, and subsequent economic stagnation. Chatham, on the other hand, integrated slightly later and learned from the mistakes of other neighborhoods. The whites still left, but their institutions and community groups were peacefully turned over to the new black residents. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, Chatham “has the distinction of being perhaps the only neighborhood in Chicago that developed from a European American middle-class community into one composed of middle-class African Americans.” To this day Chatham is more comfortable, while Grand Crossing is less well-off.

Best Glazed Torus
Dat’s Donuts
Dat’s Donuts, located on South Cottage Grove Avenue and East 82nd Street, serves up a big one. The “Big Dat,” a local culinary fable, remains the centerpiece pastry at this modest 24-hour doughnut shop on the South Side. Measuring eight inches across and serving at least four people, this colossal glazed doughnut makes every trip to Dat’s more than worthwhile. And “Big Dat” is just one member of this yeasty family; its equally delicious siblings make up an assembly of sweet wonder. Pick up an extra coconut doughnut, Devil’s Food doughnut, or popular buttermilk doughnut to complete your sugary meal. Doughnuts not enough? Order up a plate of nachos, an ice slushie, or a cone of hand-packed ice cream. 8249 S. Cottage Grove Ave. 24 hours Monday-Saturday. (773) 723-1002. (Yennie Lee)

Best Theater
eta Creative Arts Foundation
Chicago has always been one of the vanguards of African-American culture, and the eta Creative Arts Foundation has contributed to that status. The basis of the Foundation is a professional theater, which commissions original works for its stage featuring nationally renowned talent. The plays all depict the African-American experience, but that’s about all they have in common. The Foundation also boasts two art galleries and classrooms for children, which provide art and theater instruction. The theater classes are especially successful, producing graduates such as the current artistic director for the Foundation and Hollywood stars like Kel Mitchell. In a departure from the previous thirty-seven seasons, this year eta will focus on classics by established black playwrights, with only one new work. 7558 S. South Chicago Ave. (773)752-3955. (Ben Oren)

Best Vegan Alternative
Soul Vegetarian East
The image that comes to mind with soul food is hot, crispy fried chicken (or catfish) thrown straight from the kitchen onto a plate next to a bed of secondary vegetables. Soul Vegetarian turns the tables around with its purely vegan soul food menu. How can soul food exist without meat, butter, or milk? Actually, astonishingly well. Managed by African Hebrew Israelites, this iconic Grand Crossing institution decorated with vivid African art focuses on the “divine diet” consisting of nuts, fruits, and–naturally–vegetables. Soul Veg is perhaps most renowned for its textured mock meat derived from well-seasoned wheat gluten. Specialties include tofu lasagna, BBQ roast sandwich, and the Garvey Burger. The price for an average meal ranges from $5-10. 205 E 75th St. Monday-Thursday, 7am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 8am-11pm; Sunday, 8am-9pm. (773)224-0104. (Justyna Nytko)