Unicorn Cafe plays host to nearly 25-year early morning intellectual tradition


David Fishman/The Daily Northwestern

Darush Mabadi, Katherine Week and Bob Hariman sit at a communal table in Unicorn Cafe discussing politics and literature. They are part of a larger group of about 15 people who have been meeting daily for more than 25 years.

David Fishman, Reporter

One icy morning in 1992, Steven Lubet and his Siberian Husky came upon a new cafe on Sherman Avenue. Looking for a cup of coffee, Lubet walked in and sat down. Twenty-three years later, he still returns to Unicorn Cafe every morning — where he has found companionship in addition to coffee.

Lubet, a Northwestern law professor, is part of an eclectic group of 50- to 70-year-olds who meet daily at Unicorn, 1723 Sherman Ave. Over the course of its history, the group of baby boomers has included a former Navy SEAL, an architect and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills, who dedicated one of his books to the people he calls the “Unicorn symposiasts.”

Today, there are more than 15 members who meet every day at about 7 a.m. to drink coffee, mock Donald Trump and lament the Chicago Cubs’ track record.

“It’s a classic Habermasian coffeehouse where any topic is legitimate, and nothing’s off limits,” said Communication Prof. Bob Hariman, who has been part of the group for more than a decade.

But before the group morphed into its current form, members were spread across multiple tables and cafes in town.

An arbitrary genesis

In the 1980s, Evanston was mostly devoid of coffeehouses, said Rob Clarke, an Episcopalian priest and former Navy SEAL who used to be a regular member of the group. So when the now-defunct Cafe Express on Dempster Street opened at the end of the decade, it was a hit.

It was there that the earliest iteration of the Unicorn group, called the “philosophers’ table,” was born.

“It was a kind of salon in the European sense,” said NU history Prof. Jeff Rice, who co-founded the group. “There was an enormous amount of humor, an enormous amount of pomposity and an enormous amount of good fun.”

As the philosophers added members, another parallel group began to form. Founded by a therapist and a priest, it was initially labeled by Lubet as the “psychologists’ table,” he said. But in reality, the crowd was far more diverse.

“We’d chat about everything from the Three Stooges to international economics,” Clarke said.

For a time, Cafe Express filled the small city’s needs. But gradually, as coffeehouses everywhere caught on, demand for them grew in Evanston.

Drifting to the Unicorn

In the early ‘90s, a falling out with the owners of Cafe Express prompted the exodus of both groups to Unicorn Cafe, which had just opened on Sherman Avenue.

“I had been in France and fell in love with having a cafe au lait and sitting and watching life pass by,” said Unicorn co-founder Wendell Thomas, who no longer owns the cafe.

Thomas, a former trader on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, created the space for people who wanted to socialize without pressure to drink alcohol. For him, it was a community project more than a business venture.

Still in separate groups, the philosophers and psychologists found a new home in Unicorn — one sitting near the window, the other on a back platform. Eventually, they merged together.

“We saw the same people every day, morning after morning for years,” Lubet said. “There was some attrition, and we just started sitting together.”

The window symposiasts

Since the original groups formed in the late ‘80s, Hariman said relationships have become more personal, especially over the last 10 years.

The symposiasts regularly gather with their families at each other’s houses, hosting readings of the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July and holiday parties. Grandchildren sometimes stop by Unicorn to take pictures with the group, whom they see as extended family.

“When you know people long enough you begin to understand them,” said Jeff Berkson, a 25-year member of the group. “It’s not just having coffee and talking about sports or the weather — you’re talking about the challenges, successes and failures that create the arc of life.”

Their time together has not been without bumps. A recent change in Unicorn’s ownership created tension with the new management, leading some members to consider switching locations, said Katherine Week, a retired Evanston resident who joined five years ago.

Jessica Donnelly, the new owner, said the transition was a shock for the group, which she said expects any new employee to quickly catch onto its rituals.

After a spokesperson for the group sat down with Donnelly to voice its complaints, things have gotten better, Week said.

Since its inception, three group members have died, said David Sutton, a freelance photographer who joined in the ‘80s. After the first death, Michael Kane in 1994, the symposiasts mourned together.

“We sat in a backyard and drank wine for hours,” Sutton said. “The whole process of losing him, of going to the funeral with all these people and of celebrating in a quiet private way really stayed with me.”

When asked what has kept the group intact all these years, there was one universal answer: laughter.

“I love a good joke,” Hariman said. “And I love people laughing together. That’s why I’m here.”

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