Mellow Yellow has closed its doors after 46 years in Hyde Park, and taking its place is Oooh Wee It Is, a soul food eatery spreading across the city.
The longtime 53rd Street staple’s departure was announced suddenly, via a May 11 Facebook post from Oooh Wee owner Mark Walker. The restaurant, which opened in 1976 and specialized in ’70s fare like quiches and crêpes, closed for the final time on Sunday, May 15. Its food aside, for decades it was a popular breakfast destination for families, Sunday church-goers and local elected officials, notably Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Founded by Ken Pelletier, an insurance salesman of 20 years, Mellow Yellow made Herald headlines numerous times over the years for its award-winning chili and an unsuccessful union drive in 1976.
(The restaurant changed hands in 2001 when it was purchased by Francisco Garcia, the owner preceding Walker. The Garcias could not be reached for comment, though Walker says the sale is the result of Garcia, now in his 70s, looking to retire.)
Jourdan Sorrell, whose family moved to Hyde Park when he was a child in 1987, fondly recalled trips to the diner for its Saturday morning breakfast specials. “One of the first places I was aware of growing up was Mellow Yellow… it had a special meaning for us,” said Sorrell. Though he’s since moved out of Hyde Park, Sorrell and his mother would return for breakfast and smoothies whenever he was in the neighborhood. “It's always bittersweet to see what I (believe are) iconic restaurants such as Mellow Yellow leaving the area.”
Christian Ross, who attended elementary school in Hyde Park in the early 2000s, also frequented the eatery with his mom. “We would always get the same waiter, he retired a long time ago, but he went by the name of Dwayne,” said Ross. “He would always give me a free dessert. As I got older, I started to put two and two together, I think it was because he was sweet on my mom.” Ross continued to patronize Mellow Yellow well into adulthood; he and his mom eventually worked together at the Hyde Park Bank Building across the street, spending many a lunch together in the restaurant.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle also expressed grief. “For decades I’ve been having political meetings at Mellow Yellow. It started out with Ald. Hairston (5th) and I getting together on a regular basis to talk about things that impacted the 4th and 5th Wards,” said Preckwinkle. When she was elected to the county seat, these meetings expanded to include state senators and representatives on the first Friday of every month. “It’s a place where I gathered for decades, I’ll miss it in the community.” Preckwinkle said the meetings may relocate to the Original Pancake House on 47th Street and Lake Park Ave.
Diane Schirf, who moved to Hyde Park in 1979 to attend the University of Chicago, often spent Christmas and New Years Day in Mellow Yellow, which was one of the few restaurants that would stay open. Schirf and a friend paid their respects to Mellow Yellow on its last day in operation, commemorating the occasion with key lime margaritas. “In the future, there's not going to be a whole lot of these places left,” said Schirf. “People aren't going to have the same fond memories from a Chipotle.”
Though bittersweet for some, many in the neighborhood expressed excitement for the change of pace on 53rd Street.
Oooh Wee It Is, owned by husband-and-wife restaurateur team Mark and Shae Walker, features “soul food with a twist” specialties, as well as patio dining and a cereal and pasta bar.
The soul food chain grew from a 2014 line of sweet teas Walker launched called Oooh Wee Sweet Tea, which were sold in the Harold’s Chicken on 87th Street in Chatham. Oooh Wee Sweet Tea stands soon spread to Harold’s locations around the city, including Kimbark Plaza’s Harold’s Chicken #14.
When pandemic shutdowns in 2020 closed most of their tea stands (the Walkers also owned five businesses in a south suburban shopping mall, which closed as well), they began selling soul food dinners on Instagram to supplement the lost revenue. After making more than $2,000 in their first night, Mark Walker said they were inspired to open a restaurant. “We were like, ‘Okay we can do this.”’
Their first location opened in October 2020 in Burnham, IL. The following February they opened a second location in Chatham, which soon after received so many customers that lines routinely wrap around the building’s corner. Now, in addition to Hyde Park, they’re expanding to Wicker Park and Auburn Gresham, as well as considering opening locations in Texas and Georgia.
Walker, who lived with his family in Regents Park, 5035 S. East End Ave., throughout the 90s, is thrilled to be back in his favorite haunt.
“That's always been a dream of mine, to have a business in Hyde Park. It's not too often that commercial space becomes available here, and if it does, it goes very rapidly,” said Walker.
With plans to open the restaurant in August, Walker began renovations a day after picking up the keys.
“We're definitely going to brighten up the place, bring a little bit of Miami to 53rd Street.” Walker adds that Oooh Wee will also employ robot servers to deliver food to tables, “to give it a fresh new look, something different.”
Walker said they will retain current Mellow Yellow staff to work alongside the android attendants. Employees staying at the restaurant will temporarily relocate to other Oooh Wee locations in the city while renovations are completed.
On May 16, the day after Mellow Yellow’s closing, three generations of ownership — Garcia, Walker and a son of Pelletier— gathered in the empty restaurant to hand off the keys.
“We were joking, saying how times have changed from 1976 to now, that (the restaurant) actually went from being white-owned to Hispanic-owned to African American-owned,” said Walker. “I'm in high hopes that folks will receive us well… we are promising ourselves, and the residents in the community, that we will do the name (Mellow Yellow) justice.”