In August 2016, UChicago students said goodbye to Clarke’s, the 24-hour diner iconic for its mediocre drunchie food, after almost six years of business on 53rd Street. Regardless of the food’s quality or the excruciatingly long wait for a plate of pancakes, students of all stripes found themselves crammed in tiny booths in the early hours of Saturday mornings. Following the loss of what seemed to be an irreplaceable Hyde Park staple, Nando’s appeared, and its diverse dining experience replaced 3 a.m. comfort food.
Nando’s Peri-Peri restaurants are scattered across Chicagoland, but the Hyde Park branch finally launched this week, surprising residents with an earlier-than-expected opening and special perks for UChicago students. This coming Tuesday, students with a UCID and an appetite will score a quarter of a chicken, a chicken sandwich, wrap, or pita for free.
But what is all the hype about? Hyde Park already has its food icons, be it a slice of pizza from the Med or a hot panini from Z&H. However, Nando’s cuisine—a Portuguese–South African fusion of sorts—brings an exciting edge to the Hyde Park eating experience, encouraging students and residents to break free from their cuisine comfort zones.
As the restaurant becomes a Hyde Park staple, regular customers will affectionately coin it Nando’s, dropping the name of the spice so intrinsic to its dishes. Peri-peri, or African bird’s-eye chili, is a mainstay ingredient in Nando’s sauces. The peri-peri chicken is, after all, what the chain is most famous for; you’ll have the option to order chicken breasts, legs, or thighs. For the adventurous, there are the Peri-Peri chicken livers, which are rumored to melt in your mouth. Half of a chicken and two regular sides (the macho peas are a must-try) will cost you less than $15, giving you a bang for your buck. Even better, all of the peri items are customizable, and your sauce can be prepared at any level from plain-ish to extra hot; if you’re looking for a happy medium, go for the mango and lime sauce, which pairs heat with full-bodied flavor. For vegetarians who want to the peri experience, portobello mushroom wraps, veggie burgers, and roasted veggie wraps are also staples on the menu.
When owner Burton Heiss secured permits to complete a $70,000 revamp of the restaurant's interior, he likely envisioned a dining experience much different from that of its predecessor. The new restaurant is undoubtedly influenced by a South-African aesthetic. Lighting fixtures, enveloped by white and pink shades, hang from the ceiling and close up the space, allowing diners to eat in a comfortable, cozy, and intimate setting. Diners can choose wooden booths or opt for open seating. The service is quick, the waiters are friendly, and the food satisfies the craving for comfort food with a spicy twist. Not to mention, Nando’s also secured a liquor license, so a glass of red wine sangria or the Portuguese beer Super Bock will cost you only $6 a glass. When dinner and a drink are just $20, you get a dining-out experience with the unique flavor of a restaurant downtown but without the transportation costs. Nando’s seems well on its way to fill Clarke’s big shoes.