CHATHAM — A new restaurant from the owners of beloved soul food joint Oooh Wee! It Is! will celebrate its soft opening in Chatham on Wednesday.
Maxine’s, an Italian restaurant at 33 E. 83rd St., will open its doors to patrons on Valentine’s Day. Guests can make a reservation from 4-10 p.m. by calling 872-222-9005.
The white-tablecloth business is connected to and owned by Mark Walker, the restaurateur behind Chatham’s Oooh Wee! It Is!, a soul food spot that continues to wow guests — and celebrities — after nearly four years in business.
Walker named Maxine’s in honor of his mother, the late Rev. Maxine Walker, who was “influential in bringing all denominations together,” he said. She died in November 2007.
Walker’s mother was known for hosting dinner parties “where she would lay it all out,” Walker said. The reverend would serve elaborate meals of up to 10 courses to preachers and first ladies in her finely decorated Chatham home.
Walker would observe as his mother prepped her dinners, which inspired his passion for cooking, he said.
Everything he’s learned about fine dining and entertaining guests began with her, Walker said.
“I wanted to do something similar to my mother,” Walker said. “That’s a void here in our neighborhood. We don’t have anything fine dining. I wanted to bring that back to our neighborhood and give people something different.”
Walker knew he needed to offer a type of cuisine that was “different and wouldn’t be a hard demand on the kitchen,” he said. Dishes had to be quick to cook and serve but still delicious, Walker said.
“What would be better than pasta and Italian?” Walker said.
The 10-item menu at Maxine’s will include plates like king crab linguini and fresh king crab, cracked down the middle, Walker said.
Some dishes, like the Caesar salad, will be prepared tableside by the chef, Walker said.
The star on Maxine’s menu might be the restaurant’s salmon pop tart. The dish is “reminiscent of an egg roll but shaped differently” and served with a Cajun sauce for extra flavor, Walker said.
The savory pop tart is presented to guests in a gold-plated toaster.
Walking into Maxine’s through Oooh Wee!’s colorful doorway is like entering a portal. The bumping R&B music is substituted with smooth jazz. The green booths are surrounded by swaths of gold, and giant gold decor adorns the perimeter. A fireplace glows next to a small stage stationed for live music.
The details, down to the color scheme, are an ode to Walker’s mother, he said.
“She was a decorator,” Walker said. “She wasn’t one who was afraid of colors. Gold was one of her favorites. It represents style and elegance. I wanted to create that same type of vibe. I wanted the ambiance to be nice.”
Walker’s mother was “all about helping people,” he said. He continued her tradition by hiring new staff from the community, training them in “the art of fine dining” and creating a place for neighbors to “experience quality dining,” Walker said.
“I wanted to bring things back to my community that we don’t have but can go on Michigan Avenue or up north to find,” Walker said. “To be 15 to 20 minutes away from your home and it feels like you went out, had a nice experience with live music, great food, great customer service and you supported your own? That is a feeling we should welcome.”
Oooh Wee! gained attention recently after “The Bear” star Ayo Edebiri gave the soul food restaurant a shout-out in her Golden Globe acceptance speech. Edebiri portrays the talented sous chef Sydney in the hit FX series, which is set and filmed in Chicago.
In the weeks since Edebiri’s praise, Walker has seen a few new faces at the 83rd Street spot, he said.
“That was crazy. For her to spend her 15 minutes of fame and include not only Chicago but Oooh Wee! restaurant was a surreal feeling,” Walker said. “She didn’t have to do that.”
Neighbors who aren’t able to try Maxine’s on Valentine’s Day for the soft opening can visit when the Italian restaurant opens fully on Feb. 22, Walker said.
Maxine’s will be open 4-10 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. The restaurant will offer complimentary valet parking.
“We want folks to be excited and wowed,” Walker said. “We want to push the envelope to throw our hat in the ring to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got something great over here in Chatham and the 6th Ward.’”
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: