The blows keep coming for the downtown business district, with the closure of Clarke’s Off Campus, a longtime Evanston diner that’s been around for more than three decades.

Clarke’s Off Campus diner closed at the end of 2022. Credit: Evan Girard / Evanston RoundTable

The diner, which opened in Evanston in 1985, has remained a fixture for the community, particularly Northwestern University students. With demand booming, the diner moved from Clark Street to a bigger location on Davis Street in 2019. The restaurant’s shutdown follows the recent closure of three other businesses: beauty salon Deka Lash on New Year’s Day and Smylie Brothers and Flat Top Grill the day before.

Local businesses are under pressure, particularly as office workers have yet to return to downtown in pre-pandemic numbers, according to Annie Coakley, executive director of the Downtown Evanston business district. “It is very common for restaurants to have high turnover. It’s a very difficult industry. Without a strong lunch crowd, it’s even more difficult,” she said.

The city has hired a consulting firm to develop a commercial business strategy, Coakley said, with a plan set to go to city council in the coming months.

“We’re probably going through a transformation period, a reimagining of the downtown district,” she said

Deka Lash, which opened in Evanston in 2019, announced its closure on its social media accounts Sunday. “Thank you for allowing us to take care of you and your lashes for the past 4 years. We value and appreciate each and every one of you,” the store said on its Facebook and Instagram accounts.

However, some business sites will see new activity this year. Fonda, a Mexican restaurant by renowned chef Michael Lachowicz, is set to open next month at 1735 Benson Ave., where The Stained Glass once stood.

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UL divisions moving in downtown brings hope for economic growth
Downtown Evanston movie theater finally reopens

Manan Bhavnani

Prior to joining the RoundTable, Manan Bhavnani covered business and technology for the International Business Times, with a focus on mergers, earnings and governance. He is a double Medill graduate, with...

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  1. The high price and complicated process of pay to park are hurting many businesses
    Wilmette has free two hour parking and restaurants are thriving
    The constant panhandling, impromptu loud amplified music also discourages people from enjoying the downtown area.

  2. I’m very sad at the loss of Clarke’s downtown. ..good food and always a warm welcome. Evanston should have a fund to help local restaurants and small business’s stay open in spite of covid. If there’s money for a book store and other non essential stores then spread it around. One idea is to have the upcoming consultant start with a more friendly downtown … parking is a huge factor and our street pattern is awful. Around the area of Clarkes the drive pattern makes no sense. If you try it even once you’ll never come back.

  3. We often go to Wilmette for meals. We’re tired of fretting over parking meters and tickets. We just want to go and enjoy a nice meal. Wilmette has fostered some great restaurants and has created a good vibe. Evanston has become a real bummer
    Don’t underestimate how parking costs affect what people choose to do. If you’re worried about lack of parking spaces, just put a reasonable time limit on each spot based on the time of day but stop charging us to come downtown.

  4. Evanston should look to other neighbors such as Wilmette, Winnetka, Highland Park… who encourage a business friendly environment. There are many well to do Evanston residents who would love to set up a business in their home town, but frankly are dissuaded by rent structures, aggressive parking restrictions (free in Wilmette), perpetual issues with panhandlers all over Evanston, the onerous planning codes…Evanston used to be the go to place where NS residents who did not want to go down to Chicago came to shop and eat. Even Chicago residents wanting to escape the city would come to Evanston. It now is starting to resemble a ghost town, which is sad to see and does not encourage business ventures. Evanston residents in the fortunate position of buying and restructuring historic homes, setting up business and more should be treated as partners not enemies.

    1. Comparing suburbs such as Winnetka, Wilmette and Highland Park to Evanston is like comparing apples to oranges. None of those towns have populations anywhere near 50,000 people (Winnetka only had about 12,000 residents as of 2021, compared to Evanston’s 77,000). There is also minimal racial and economic diversity in those communities. Their principal commercial districts are tiny compared to those of Evanston. They are essentially upper-class bedroom communities. Evanston is basically a small city with a much more diverse socioeconomic profile than surrounding North Shore communities. It has several good-sized commercial districts comprised of all types of businesses that aren’t even available in the smaller suburbs. Evanston’s community infrastructure also supports a huge institution (Northwestern University) which pays no property taxes—quite a unique burden. When Evanston’s political leaders formulate financial policy, they have to consider many more competing interests than the towns mentioned above. They have to balance policies that encourage investment without pricing Evanston’s poor and middle class residents, who comprise a significant portion of its population, out of the community. Evanston also has to direct some of its resources to address their needs, as well as the needs of the business and investment classes. A tall order indeed.

  5. Seems we need to have some city people doing some serious outreach to see what’s happening. Are corporate landlords pushing up rents? Where’s the ARPA money?
    City is total denial about the parking fee issue.
    We need more people who LIVE in Evanston – working FOR City of Evanston.

  6. I read some of the comments here and wonder if I even live in the same town as some of the people who posted below. One reader claims there is more than a one-third commercial vacancy rate in downtown Evanston. I don’t think so. When I walk down most of the major thoroughfares downtown, I see something probably closer to the 15 percent figure cited by city officials. This is actually a high vacancy rate, but not unusual in the post-pandemic era, where many non-essential businesses have taken a hit due to pandemic after-effects, labor shortages, inflation and changing consumer habits. How many coffee shops can one town support these days? Even with some recent closures, there are still tons of them here. And sure, there are homeless people around, but I can’t say the numbers are more than what you would expect in a town of around 75,000 people that has the socioeconomic diversity Evanston does. Most of the homeless I’ve encountered are not very aggressive or frightening—unless you’re counting their mere presence as a threat. They usually stand off to the side of streets or entrances making their pitch, and many will say “bless you” even if you walk by and ignore them. Well-off Evanstonians going to “safer” towns to shop? I’d like to know where. I don’t know of any nearby towns with equal or greater commercial density where you don’t have at least as much crime or vagrancy as Evanston, and where you’d be justified in feeling safer. We live in troubled times filled with economic upheaval. No city can escape these forces no matter what ideology the people running it adopt. But, on balance, Evanston is still a decent place to live, and certainly nothing approaching the decaying hells-scape some people make it out to be.

  7. The problem with downtown Evanston,is the parking . I can sit in my office and watch people get parking tickets all day long,it’s ridiculous. Why would anyone deal with that when they can go anywhere else on the northshore and not deal with parking issues or tickets!!

  8. What does the Chamber of Commerce do?
    It’s a shame that some businesses receive no accolades in the press for having served our community for so many years. Google says Smiley’s is “Temporarily Closed”. They may not have a robust lunch business, but I’m guessing that, due to the pandemic, their carry-out business was more substantial than their dine-in business.
    When is Northlight Theater starting construction? That should help, if they can hold out. Can’t landlords give long-time commercial tenants a break in the rents? Can that be negotiated on the tenants’ behalf?

  9. Look what Evanston’s elected leaders – mayor, alders and economic development gurus like Paul Zalzamak (and residents who vote for these people) have done to this place in just a few short years. Used to be a nice college town (albeit a fairly racist and segregated one just like Chicago to the south). Then leaders somehow decided a small college town of 80,000 had the resources to act as a haven for all the homeless, low income, addicts and mentally ill of cook county. So we build more affordable housing, convert hotels to homeless shelters and look to attract as many mentally unstable folks as we can for ideological reasons. Ideology matters more here than public safety, property values, schools performance, fiscal stability or a vibrant downtown. All of these indicators have fallen off a cliff and this dates to well before covid. Zalzamak will feed us stories about how the vacancy rate downtown is only 15% when it’s clearly closer to 35%. He’ll tell us vacancies are because workers haven’t come back but we’ve never seen any data on daytime workers and in reality Evanston never had a large office worker population in the 30 years I’ve been here. Instead we’re a college town with 10,000 rich kids from around the world who can’t bother to walk 500 feet from campus to spend money in a dead downtown because all they see is blight, vacancy and vagrants. Meanwhile on the north side of Evanston we have mostly neo-libs who choose to drive to towns nearby to shop and eat because they’re afraid of spending time here and walking 500 feet to central. Even chains like Starbucks are closing up shop on central. There may be a chance we could get some rational new leadership next election but that will likely be the last chance before this place is too far gone.

    1. Yes Leo, there’s a glaring shortage of hotel rooms in downtown Evanston with the conversion of the Orrington, Holiday Inn, Graduate, and place on Maple into upscale homeless shelters. Absolutely tragic.

    2. There are certain elements of your analysis that appear to be correct. The core argument you are presenting appears to be an economic one. And that the idealism expressed by members of the community are not balanced by cash flow or reserves to accomplish those values. Probably the city should look more towards Northwestern, because, whether we (or they) admit it, we are bound at the hip as both the town and university move towards the future.