Fair or Foul: Chicago’s Black Nightlife Owners Speak Out

Owners Wilbur and Dawn Milhouse of MVie Restaurant
Owners Wilbur and Dawn Millhouse of MVie Restaurant

A great deal of the attraction to the Windy City centers around the restaurants and nightlife culture. In the African American community, a long legacy of some of the most iconic brands has been created by Black ownership. The two worlds of nightlife attraction and Black ownership have laid the groundwork for building solid business people in the African American community.

In the 1970’s, some of the most famous Black-owned nightclubs included High Chaparral, The Club, Guys and Gals, and the Golden Peacock among many that were the pride and joy of the Black community. Most of these clubs no longer exist and in their place are empty lots or other big box businesses. Two of the first Black-owned nightclubs that moved closer to downtown were The Cotton Club and Chic Rick’s in the early 1980’s, both located in the underdeveloped South Loop area at the time.

Since then, several clubs and restaurants have been created, owned and operated by Black business people outside of the familiar confines of the West Side and South Side where smaller watering holes are still thriving. The tragic occurrence of the most popular venue, E2, with 21 club patrons losing their lives suffocating in the staircase of the club, permanently closed the establishment. The City of Chicago has used this situation as a blueprint for tightening guidelines for establishments seeking various permits and licenses in protection of public safety.

In a string of the latest upsets have been violent crimes involving shootings, resulting in patrons being shot outside of clubs. Most of these violent crimes have occurred at Black-owned venues or venues that host predominately Black patrons. Two venues have closed as a result of violent crimes: the Buddha Lounge, a long running club located in the River West neighborhood, and Sawtooth Restaurant and Lounge in the West Loop. Although, the Buddha Lounge was not Black-owned, it often hosted events that attracted Black and Hispanic patrons. Residents in the surrounding neighborhood circulated a petition demanding the venue’s closing which landed on 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett’s desk following the latest shooting near the club.

According to state records, Sawtooth Restaurant and Lounge LLC is owned by Rana Mack as of December 2014, but city officials list Dzuy Dao as owner of the business and holder of the liquor license. In addition to complaint calls to authorities from neighboring businesses and the Randolph Fulton Market Association demanding the business’s license be revoked, the building’s owner also issued an eviction notice.

I tried to advise the owners of Sawtooth that they were not a club, but they operated like a club and there’s a thin line between a restaurant and club. Now, most of the White establishments sometimes operate as both a club and restaurant. The problem with Sawtooth is that they had a predominately Black crowd lined up the street in a mostly White neighborhood along with bouncers and a doorman. A restaurant should be where I can take my son and be able to eat without having to show an I.D. and be frisked to enter,” said Alderman Burnett. “The challenge becomes when owners try to get as much money out of these places as a restaurant by hiring promoters – that’s when the violations come into play. It’s the same scenario that occurred with Plush Lounge,” he added.

Was this discrimination towards Black-operated businesses in an area that has increasingly become gentrified? Or is this a case of non-business practice in an industry that is closely watched due to the level of “easy” entry and cash liquidation?

The word N*GG*R spray painted on the front of black owned business Nouveau Tavern in Chicago's River North neighborhood.
The word N*GG*R spray painted on the front of black owned business Nouveau Tavern in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.

In the River North area, Nouveau Tavern is the latest casualty having to close its doors on April 11. The restaurant, located at 358 W. Ontario St., catered to a predominately Black crowd, premiered Creole-inspired cuisine and often hosted private events that turned into a club environment after 10 p.m. on weekends. Ever since the business opened, management has had a series of road blocks with complaints from residents and the city. Last summer, the message ‘N*GG*R’ was spray painted on the outside brick wall of the front entrance of Nouveau Tavern.

Struggling with their liquor license renewal being denied and operating without a food and liquor license resulted in a shut down by the Chicago Police Department. The Chicago Defender’s calls and e-mail requests to the Chicago Police Department went unanswered by deadline. Just recently, the restaurant re-opened under the strict guidelines of the City of Chicago that the business must close at 11 p.m.

Nouveau Tavern’s marketing manager, Teddy Gilmore, explained, “The city used the ‘gang and drug’ ordinance to abruptly close us down. We were closed for a week and went back in front of a housing judge who allowed us to open without a DJ. We need to do this for two weeks and then we go back in front of the judge. Unfortunately, these actions are a direct result of some of the violence that has been occurring around the city — we’ve never had a shooting or stabbing. Yes, disorderly conduct from drunk patrons, but it happens to everyone that owns a nightlife business.”

The diversity of integration through nightlife is nothing new but it was rare before the early 1990’s to many Black patrons partying North of Roosevelt Road and East of Damen. With the growth of house and hip hop music — the common thread has created an outreach beyond the comfort zones of the South Side and West Side neighborhoods.

Restaurant proprietors Dawn and Wilbur Millhouse own and operate MVie Restaurant in the River West neighborhood which has been opened for three years, building a loyal and professional customer base. They credit the success of the restaurant to staying true to their targeted audience.

The goal for MVie Chicago is to provide a comfortable atmosphere for professionals to enjoy great food, excellent craft cocktails and superior service. We are not a tavern or dance club, nor will we become one. Behind the brown door, we practice keeping the ‘main thing the main thing’ while focusing on consistency with the food quality, preparation and service. Although we host a variety of private events such as our signature Sweet 16 celebrations, we are first and always a restaurant,” explains Dawn Millhouse.

Other Black-owned nightlife businesses have created a niche and understand how to maintain an ongoing relationship with the community and public officials. The Velvet Lounge, located in the South Loop area, carries the rich tradition of ownership in an area that has drastically changed from its days when The Cotton Club and Mr. Ricky’s once dominated as the only Black nightclubs in the neighborhood.

Live performance at the Velvet Lounge in Chicago's South Loop neighborhood. Photo credit: Chunsum Johnson
Live performance at the Velvet Lounge in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood. Photo credit: Chunsum Johnson

I feel there are certain areas of the city that do not want Black nightlife. I cannot say there is discrimination with the process of obtaining a liquor license. I’ve had three liquor licenses in my name in the South Loop. Some residents give African Americans a harder time when it comes to obtaining a liquor license. For example, when I applied for one of my licenses; the residents upstairs from my establishment started to write to the liquor commission after they saw me. They had never been inside my place, talked to me about what the concept was or who would be coming,” said Kenny Johnson, owner of The Velvet Lounge.

He added, “They wrote the Liquor Commission a list of things they thought I would be doing like ‘gang banging,’ urinating on sidewalks, selling drugs, etc.” Johnson said a neighbor told him his business would have a deleterious effect but moved above an existing business with a liquor license prior to his arrival.

The Riff Music Lounge located at 2239 S. Michigan Ave. was a victim of an isolated incident of crime, recently being closed for 60 days when a club patron was killed and another man wounded. Alderman Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) is currently working with the business owners to educate them on the correct licenses and permits to operate. Although, the Riff is not Black- owned, a great deal of their patrons are African American.

If you want to own a tavern or club, my recommendation is to be upfront with the elected officials and the city about the type of business you would like to have so that we can work with you to help make the business successful,” said Alderman Dowell “In 2008, there was a promoter ordinance that the City Council was working on, but it didn’t get anywhere. Currently, Alderman Brendan Reilly is working on an ordinance that is designed for business owners as opposed to event promoters; it’s centered on accountability. I’m working with him on it,” Dowell added.

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