I cut class for the first time my senior year of high school. Third period, skipped out on dance. I wasn’t doing anything cool or particularly rebellious – I was at brunch at Sweet Maple Cafe.
I first heard about the place that would become the cause of my truancy on an episode of WTTW’s Check, Please, a show where three ordinary people put forth their favorite restaurants for recommendation and the other guests visited and then weighed in on their experience. I can’t remember what exactly drew my attention to Sweet Maple, but I can assume it had something to do with the proximity to my school and a lifelong love of pancakes.
It’s been almost two decades since I graduated high school (the SAME high school, I may add, from which Michelle Obama graduated) and I no longer live in Chicago, but I return to Sweet Maple Cafe at least once a year.
The cafe is a one-room store front space on Taylor Street – a one time Italian enclave that was also home to the ABLA public homes – that is often filled with a college-brochure style cross section of races, ages, and occupations. Now called the Tri-Taylor area, the neighborhood was a mix of people who were born and raised in the neighborhood, college students, medical professionals, and everybody else.
“Unpretentious” is a loaded and overused term, especially when it comes to restaurants owned by black folks. But, owner Laurene Hynson wanted to create a space where people felt fully at home. There is an ease to the cooking, to the dining room, which is now outside due to Covid-19, that Hynson herself reflects. “I have no restaurant background at all and I kind of fell into the business.” She laughs. That was 22 years ago, so she’s clearly done something right.
Credit: Lyndon French
Credit: Lyndon French
Credit: Lyndon French
The space, during normal times, is crowded with tables covered in vinyl tablecloths in small floral patterns and checks. Wooden chairs that creak ever so slightly and scrape against whitewashed-ish floors. Servers in all black move deftly from the small kitchen that is just visible behind the counter. The walls are reminiscent of the inside of a cabin, by way of a local theater production, with black and white framed photos sprinkled across the room. “I had a picture, that actually belonged to my husband’s family, of three women who were standing in a field.” Hynson says of the inspiration of the design. “I wanted to set it, set the scene in a different time and place.” There are even maple leaves carved into the walls. The design of Sweet Maple Cafe is homey artifice, not kitsch, that would be too aggressive, but it is clearly a facsimile of the real thing.
I, like many, assumed that Hynson was paying tribute to family roots in the south, the Chicago to Mississippi or Alabama pipeline strong since the days of the Great Migration, but she is a born and bred Chicagoan, her family going back a couple of generations. It makes sense in a way, that I am drawn to this box set of black life, someone without any family to visit in the south, but roots firmly planted in Missouri. Even the photo that sparked the idea for Sweet Maple Cafe was taken in Annapolis, Maryland, not the south.
Where Sweet Maple Cafe succeeds where so many spaces fail is that it is evocative. There’s a danger in romanticizing the past, but that’s not what happens here. The faux-peeling wallpaper and the portraits hung with no clear rhyme or reason, they ask you not to imagine a gentler, sanitized version of Black life, but of home. You know you’re not in someone’s cramped kitchen or a roadside cafe in the middle of nowhere, but the little touches telegraph just enough that you get that feeling.
Like many restaurateurs, Hynson had to pivot in the past two years. She turned to the lot next door, a grassy plot that you’ll often find in Chicago where space isn’t cheap but is certainly more bountiful than it is in New York. She worked with a local artist to add color to the patio, taking a vintage linoleum pattern and blowing it up so that it looks like you are sitting on a single tile. When I went back recently to make sure my memory was still connected to reality (an activity I should probably undertake more often) the patio was filled with modern, nondescript patio furniture. But when I got up to give my four top to a family and moved with my mom to a table for two we ended up at a table with two of the wooden chairs from the dining room.
We often come to restaurants for something outside of the food, otherwise we’d all be eating takeout in the comfort of our own home at all times. The food has to be good, don’t get me wrong. But we get dressed, get in our cars or on the train for an experience. Sometimes it is to be wowed, others to be seen, sometimes it is to feel closer to a place we miss. The local dinner, the coffee shop where the barista knows your name. Hynson wanted the space to match the comforting feeling of the food, “The feeling I want people to have is that somebody who loves them, made them breakfast.”
Food alone can’t do that. In order to feel welcome there needs to be a feeling for you to step into. A safe harbor, a refuge from the cold. Sweet Maple Cafe may excel at bacon and biscuits (my god, the sweet cream biscuits) enough to get you in the door, but the slice of life, a uniquely Chicago slice of life that keeps me coming back. It’s the chairs that remind me of my grandmother, the photos that keep me occupied during the comfortable lull in a conversation with someone I love, the windows looking out onto Taylor street, ever changing, always bustling. It is a space that holds me. It is a space that lets me know that it is okay to cobble together the pieces of joy that make a life.
Nora Taylor is a Brooklyn-based writer and the deputy editor of Hodinkee.