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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Commemorative street honors longtime cafe owner

Patrick Svitek/Daily Senior Staffer
Evanston City Council voted July 8 to designate Mary Lou Smith Way. Named after a longtime cafe owner, the commemorative street is on Poplar Avenue between Central and Harrison streets.

Mary Lou Smith has retired from the restaurant business, but her name is not leaving Evanston. City Council voted July 8 to designated a street sign on Poplar Avenue in her honor for her work at Top of the Tracks, a cafe she owned with her husband for nearly 25 years.

Smith, who was known for keeping her customers up to date on neighborhood issues, said she was surprised when she read about the recognition in the newspaper.

“I have 25 years of talking. I suppose I talked my way into a sign,” said Smith, who went to Evanston Township High School and has raised her four children in Evanston.

Every year, aldermen can nominate one person from their wards to receive a designated sign, and the Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Public Place Names approves and forwards the request to the Planning and Development Committee. The council votes on the final decision.

Evanston resident Mark Sloane nominated Smith, writing in his application that her “positive, pleasant, warm and friendly demeanor starts so many people’s days on the right track.”

Eden Juron Pearlman, a member of the Citizens’ Advisory Committee, agreed Smith had a unique connection with her customers.

“In a kind of a funny way, she touched a lot of people in the area,” Pearlman said. “She was there every morning greeting them. … This long time business owner made an impact in a different sort of way.”

Smith sold Top of the Tracks in October 2012, and its new owners renamed it Upstairs Cafe. Smith said talking with customers is what she misses most about the cafe.

During her time at Top of the Tracks, Smith made a point of knowing the regulars’ names and coffee orders, building relationships that she likened to those on the television show “Cheers.”

“It was the people that made it,” Smith said. “Most of them did turn more like family.”

Top of the Tracks opened its doors in 1988 and became a staple for morning commuters at the Central Street Metra station. Smith said she even got to know workers at the stop, including Sergio, a ticket agent.

During the first few years, it took Smith and her husband time to adjust to the shop’s demanding morning schedule.

Smith’s husband got to the cafe by 3 a.m. every day, and Smith came in at about 6 a.m. Their morning routine was perfected over time, from buying bagels in Skokie to starting the coffee to bringing the paper inside.

“It was down to a science,” Smith said. “We had it where whatever we did was easy at that point.”

Although she will not miss getting up early for work, Smith said she always enjoyed her job and has no regrets.

Prior to opening Top of the Tracks, she worked in a variety of other positions, from owning another restaurant to staging houses. She said she has always been her own boss.

Despite her initial plans to retire, Smith is now working at a company founded by her sister. The pair owns Smith & Joans Shrinking Homes, a group that helps homeowners downsize.

“It’s turned into an adventure for us,” Smith said.

Although she enjoys interacting with the community through Smith & Joans, she said she occasionally visits her old cafe to see her former customers.

Summer reporter Annie Bruce can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Commemorative street honors longtime cafe owner