By Finisha O’Quinn
It’s 6 p.m. and the line inside MacArthur’s has wound its way through the restaurant and spilled out onto Madison Street and the warm spring night. The Saturday evening crowd waits patiently for the chance to place their order for the soul food dinner of choice.
As the line inches along, it carries with it the dull roar of conversations. If you listen closely, most can be made out and almost all are identical. Those on cell phones are placing calls that begin with “I’m at MacArthur’s. What do you want?”
Customers who are in line and not on the phone have similar conversations with those they’ve come with.
One patron yells, “It’s a line, but I don’t care. I want some macaroni and cheese and greens.”
Oliver, from the South Side, has his hands shoved deep in his pockets and rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet as he surveys the food inside the thick glass. He drove all the way across town for his girlfriend.
“She wants some mac and cheese, greens and yams, and they had to be from MacArthur’s.”
Tameka, from the neighborhood, is smiling to herself as she realizes today is the day they have her favorite entrée: “I come here because the food is good.”
Behind her in line, a couple has entered the restaurant. They have traveled from south suburban Park Forest and have been coming here for two years.
“My friend is visiting from out of town, and me and my wife told her she had to eat at MacArthur’s.” This couple says they were first introduced to the establishment by Rev. James Meeks of Salem Baptist Church.
As does everyone else in the processional, they stop immediately upon seeing the picture of Barack Obama and utter the words, “The president was here.”
All conversations change from food to who has eaten at the restaurant as each customer passes by the wall displaying such notables as Dwayne Wade, Derrick Rose, Gabrielle Union, Mayor Richard Daley, Monique, Omar Epps and many more.
It’s 7 p.m. and the line has now been contained to just the first turn along the wall. But just when it appears the ladies behind the counter may soon get a break, a new wave of dinner guests arrive and the line once again extends to the south door.
Still, it moves forward.
“Hot mac and cheese!” yells the cook from the back.
He pushes his way through the door and drops the fresh pan of macaroni, which waits to be scooped up by the ladies. It will soon be emptied and enjoyed by those in line. He returns through the doors to prepare more food.
The ladies in the assembly line are still smiling. They dip their spoons into the hot servings and push the plates down to where they will be wrapped, never missing a beat.
“Next … Next.”
“For here or to go?”
Sometimes they must wait for customers who, while standing in line, didn’t reach anyone at home and are now placing orders over their cell phones – often two or three dinners at a time.
They wait patiently, obviously not a stranger to this behavior. And on this night alone, it has already taken place several times.
This is combined with the constant ringing of the phone. Valentina crooks the phone on her neck as she answers questions from the guest on the phone, while simultaneously dipping and placing spaghetti on the plate of a guest in front of her.
The line is shrinking.
John, from Oak Park, is placing an order with Vanessa at the catering counter. He says he has been coming here for more than three years. “I come here because the food is good and it’s reasonably priced.”
Vanessa mentions that MacArthur’s also caters to hotels for special customers. She says Mary J. Blige started the business of having food delivered there.
“She was the first one who requested food be at her hotel when she landed in Chicago. We have been doing it ever since. Just today, we got a call from a 501 area code, and he ordered food before his plane landed so it would already be at his hotel room.”
At 8 p.m., another swarm of customers arrives, forcing the line to once again cut through the middle of the restaurant.
Included in this mix are the Ryans from Augusta, Ga. They have come to Chicago in search of a medical specialist for their son Isaiah. While visiting a popcorn store in the Loop that very morning, Karen Ryan says a woman told them they had to stop in and get some food from MacArthur’s.
“We were downtown at Garretts, and a lady working there told us we couldn’t leave Chicago without stopping at MacArthur’s in Austin.”
“Short ribs!” The fresh pan of meat is set down and quickly emptied, then taken away.
Tina is beyond skillful on the cash register. She can’t slow down, and the register doesn’t stop. She is able to total orders and add-ons of pie, cake and drinks that practically everyone will include as they arrive at the final counter to exchange cash for food. The drawer constantly opens and closes as she rips tape and hands customers their receipts.
“Thank you and have a nice evening.”
In all, five states are represented in MacArthur’s on this Saturday night – including Arkansas and New York.
Upon departing for the evening, I hear the words still ringing out: “Next. Next.” The phone is ringing, the register is clicking, and customers are still ordering.
It’s difficult to tell that the restaurant will be closing in less than an hour – there is still a line.
The ebb and flow of MacArthur’s. But tomorrow there will be no such thing as ebb and flow – only flow. For tomorrow is Sunday, their busiest day of the week. The parking lot will be filled to capacity before 2 p.m., with cars double parked on Madison Street.
They’ll all be coming because “The food is good.”