Like most restaurants, Café NINE 17 ( which opened in May ) is full of delicious treats that stick to your ribs. Unlike a lot of eateries, it is being promoted as a safe spot for the LGBT community—which probably has to do with the fact that the owner, Liu Montsho, is an out lesbian who has been raised to be inclusive.
Recently, the animated Montsho talked with Identity about serving customers, moving from the Far North Side and realizing just how large the South Side LGBT community really is.
Windy City Times: What's the cuisine at Café NINE 17?
Liu Montsho: We serve contemporary American food. We're kind of like Bennigan's but we have some old standbys, such as wings and catfish ( because we love that kind of stuff ) . We also have soups, salads and loads of appetizers. Dinners include shrimp, steak and turkey [ entrees ] . So it's not soul food—and that makes us very different from other restaurants in my area.
WCT: I saw your food described on the Web as 'Americana with a soul food twist.'
LM: Yeah, I saw that ... and that's not right. We have feel-good food, like potato skins with bacon, cheese and scallions. It's like bar-and-grill-type food. Now, we also have a cozy environment: carpet, booths, nice tables and warm tones. But we're pretty much a bar and grill.
We also have homemade cheeseburger soup and sweet potato french fries. We have lots of wraps, because they're something I brought from the North Side; we sell blackened chicken and even Cajun prime rib wraps. [ Note: The café started serving breakfast Dec. 13. ]
WCT: Having that much good food in one place should be a sin.
LM: We also have some good desserts—like strawberry shortcake. Our mile-high cheesecake is pretty awesome, too; it's huge. We're into large portions; that's something I borrowed from Leona's. We also have a bananas foster dessert. I used to really eat that up. [ Laughs. ]
Our focus is on fast service, too. I've noticed that [ with some restaurants ] the food would be really good but the service would be shot. Let's have good food but let's focus on the customers, too. I brought all of my retail experience out here and tried to implement it here—because people can get food anywhere. I selected food for the menu because they taste good—but I had an eye on preparation as well.
WCT: You said that you lived on the North Side. Why did you open a restaurant on the South Side?
LM: I did it for a couple of reasons. First, I moved south because you definitely get more bang for your buck in the housing market; I knew that I wanted to open a business and didn't want to commute too far. Second—and I'm not naming any names—I felt like [ as a customer ] I had to say 'Hi, can I help YOU?' I got a little fed up with the lack of sit-down places and the poor quality of service.
Also, there's a really large African-American gay community out here; I was really surprised by how out they are. I started wondering about where our places are, beyond the bars. There are plenty of LGBT places on the North Side but there seem to be only a couple of places out here.
I just wanted to have a place where two girlfriends can eat with their arms around each other or where a guy can propose to his boyfriend without everyone going, 'Oh, my God!' We need our own spaces. It's all about respect and not passing judgment. Interacting with each other should enrich the human experience.
WCT: What types of events are there?
LM: We have a spoken word open mic poetry night on Wednesdays. Also, there's live jazz and R&B from 7-10 on Thursdays. We even do Christian comedy on the second Sunday of every month. We also plan on doing some The L Word Sundays when the series starts again.
WCT: What are the best and worst aspects of running your business?
LM: Whew! [ Laughs. ] The worst ( or hardest ) thing is turning something—especially if it's your passion—over to other people to execute. Yes, the hours are long; however, most people expect that. You have to trust others to execute your vision and that's so hard for me. I know how I want things done but I can't be here all the time to do it.
The best thing is the flip side of that—seeing something that was just a thought become an actual brick-and-mortar place. ( My friends and I came up with the concept, writing on the white paper at Tomboy. ) I've actually heard people say, 'I really like that new place on 79th.' That's the best.
Café NINE 17 is located, fittingly, at 917 W. 79th. Hours are: Sun.,Tues., Wed., 7 a.m.-9 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat, 7 a.m.-10 p.m; closed Mon. Call ( 773 ) 723-2222.
This article also appears in the January Identity, WCT's sister publication.