Second in two-part series on Evanston’s 21st-century “speak-easies.”
From morning until night, hot weather or cold, Evanston’s unique cafés provide its residents with the drinks and snacks to get through the day. A visit to Evanston’s ten coffee shops revealed ten different looks, vibes and menus. However, all ten devote themselves to satisfying Evanstonians across the street or across town. Those who take a moment to scope out the different locations around the City might find the perfect neighborhood coffee shop right around the corner.
The Brothers K
The “Brothers K,” John and Brian Kim, have provided the Main Street shopping and dining district of Evanston with an invaluable commodity: the Brothers K Coffee House at 500 Main St., which they started five years ago on the location of the former Café Express. Two-person tables inside and out invite students, locals and anyone looking for a cup of fresh coffee. What is more, the café’s pastries and wraps from local food establishments such as Bennison’s and Blind Faith give the café an air of loyalty to its patrons and to Evanston. As for the drinks themselves, just one step through the door introduces the tantalizing aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Nick Kohout, a barista at the café, explained why fair trade coffee is just one of the kinds of coffee available at the shop: “In order to offer more coffee varieties, we had to limit the amount of fair trade.” This does not seem to have affected the Brothers K’s popularity, though. Friends laughing, students studying and a wall full of local posters and fliers indicate that the café is still going strong with no end in sight.
The Unicorn Café
The Unicorn Café, established in 1991, has become an indispensable study center and local-music venue in downtown Evanston. Located at 1723 Sherman Ave., the café offers both indoor and outdoor seating, as well as a broad variety of coffees and other drinks. One barista explained how adaptive Unicorn Café tries to be in order to please its clientele within a “large age range.” She explained that if the patrons want vegan things, “We want vegan things.” During the summer the iced coffees are popular, but their specialty, she says, is “good old drip coffee.” She also mentioned that the café’s main goal is to offer healthy foods in order to maintain the satisfaction of their customers. However, it is not just the patrons who enjoy the classic local-coffeehouse feel. The woman behind the counter expressed appreciation at seeing many of the same patrons come and go. “People who come here,” she said, “are really smart and talented.” Apparently the appreciation of the Unicorn Café goes both ways.
Wild Tree Café
The Wild Tree Café at 1100 Davis St. was started three years ago across from the post office and a short walk from downtown Evanston. The limited space inside offers an intimate setting for indulging in one of one of their many shakes, sandwiches and other lunch or snack items. Despite its size, the Café attracts many local residents and Northwestern University students. Greg Bougon, one of the café’s managers, has a good idea why the café has continued to appeal to its clients after years in a fairly hidden, though attractive, location. “The patterns change,” he said. “There’s been a big upsurge for breakfast and lunch.” To accommodate the changing desires of its patrons, the café made outdoor seating available and often changes its menu. While the interior of Wild Tree is laden with local art, outside seating on the sidewalk is fenced in by an arrangement of thick branches attached to a wooden barrier. Its ambiance mimics the natural feeling of the interior. As for the drinks themselves, the smoothies and shakes are a great way to cool off on a summer’s day. Soft, cake-like muffins taste even better with a sip of their Café Cubana Latte, and it is nice to know that part of the proceeds go to charity.
Top of the Tracks
“It’s just a good cup of coffee,” said Marylou Smith, owner of Top of The Tracks, a café in the Central Street Metra Station. “What you see is what you get.” The café has been a vital part of many commuters’ morning routine for nearly 28 years. Offering coffee, doughnuts and other morning tidbits, the café has consistently served people going to work from as early as 5 a.m. until it closes at 10 a.m. Because of Top of the Tracks’ long history of service and steady flow of clientele, Mrs. Smith said her interactions with customers have become an important part of her work. “They’re good friends,” she said. “You get to know their family.” For this reason, Top of the Tracks remains a reliable place for early morning train-goers to start their day with a hot cup of coffee and a friendly “hello.”
Linz and Vail
Linz and Vail, with locations at 922 Noyes St. and 2010 Central St., has become a popular local spot for both students and families. Since 2005 the café’s broad selection of hot and cold drinks has been bringing in customers eager for anything from iced coffee to house-brewed cider mulled with a unique spice blend. In summer, when many of the shop’s Northwestern University customers are gone, it is mostly local families who retreat to the clean and comfortable atmosphere to escape the heat. Patrick Neal, one of the cafe attendants, remarked on the advantage of the cafés’ small size: They have the flexibility to change the menu based on what the clientele wants. “We’re not corporate,” said Mr. Neal. “We can do a lot of stuff Starbucks can’t.” However, the size of Linz and Vail does not stop them from striving to make a global impact. Their fair trade coffee, including the popular new Ghana Mocha, offers a sustainable way to get a caffeine kick in the morning. On a walk around town, take a step inside. The house-made gelato is a flavorful complement to a sunny day at the beach.