Anushuya Thapa/Daily Senior Staffer
Many Northwestern students walk into Wildcat Welcome determined to get to know “the city” well during their four years on campus. Though the phrase usually refers to wide-eyed Chicago outings at first, the realization that Evanston’s business district stretches way beyond the Tomate-to-Target corridor can be equally transformative.
As Evanston’s small business community continues to rebuild from pandemic shutdowns and restrictions, both old favorites and new gems are back in action along the CTA Purple Line for students to explore. Some businesses have launched collaborations or rebranded themselves entirely, bringing new life into beloved retail spaces.
On a recent “Small Business Saturday,” for example, customers filled shopping passports at participating stores to win locally sourced gift bags. Meanwhile, the masterminds behind Backlot Coffee have swapped kombucha kegs for climbing vines with a plant shop at their former Sherman Avenue storefront, and the beloved submarine-shaped booths at Whiskey Thief Tavern have turned into team headquarters for Tuesday trivia nights at the new Evanston branch of Bob’s Pizza.
For students looking to grab a unique bite or spend hours window-shopping, this guide to some of Evanston’s best small businesses is just for you.
But First, Brunch
Clarke’s Off Campus
Weekends are always jam-packed at this quintessential Evanston diner, which has been around since 1985 and served over 10 million customers. The family business recently moved to a larger storefront on Davis Street, but the new Clarke’s Off Campus location is just as full of NU school spirit as the old storefront, and the restaurant’s staff are still famously cheerful and warm. The restaurant has a variety of intricate pancakes and waffles — a stack of cinnamon roll pancakes for the table is always a good idea — and so are the egg skillets. The restaurant also serves classic brunch foods as well as a variety of classic lunch and dinner fare all day.
Ovo Frito Cafe
Students walking from the southwest area of campus or getting off at the Foster L station can spot Ovo Frito’s signature yellow awning a mile away. Married couple owner and operator team Roberto Flores and Zinnia Iglesias are known for introducing Evanston’s vibrant brunch culture into the Foster area, which can be a bit of an in-between zone between northern and southern Evanston business districts. But more than that, Ovo Frito is known for their popular Latin-inspired brunch dishes on big plates. Check out Zinnia’s spicy chilaquiles, the Sierra Benedict with chorizo and the Mi Terra omelette, made with cream cheese and salsa verde — but make sure to save some room for the cornflake-crusted French toast.
Also check out: Frida’s Breakfast & Lunch, Blind Faith Cafe
Coffee and Casual
An iconic Evanston institution since 1983, Hecky’s Barbecue is famous throughout the Chicago area for ribs and crowd-pleasing chicken buckets, but its barbecue sauce, which can be shipped nationwide, is on a different level of notoriety. Hundreds of Evanston residents have deep personal connections to the restaurant and some employees have stayed for upwards of a decade. After the death of co-founder Hecky Powell, the restaurant underwent updates last November with several new menu items in Powell’s honor, including beef ribs and chili made with Hecky’s famous sauce. Make a trip out from south campus to the corner of Green Bay Road and Emerson Street for meats of choice, pulled pork sandwiches, fried fish, sides and anything else you might dream of drenching in barbecue sauce.
While most student-frequented coffee shops in Evanston are clustered near South Campus, homemade Filipino-, Japanese- and Korean-inspired pastries, along with rotating local art displays — plus a surprisingly funny Twitter presence — sets northbound Coffee Lab apart. Located on Noyes Street, the shop moved to a larger storefront in 2015, accommodating pastry-seeking crowds on Sundays and lots of space for studying with friends. Their ube latte is a must-try, with a couple shots of espresso if you’re feeling brave, but Coffee Lab also keeps a creative list of seasonal specials. Catch the banana split and coconut mango lattes at the end of summer, or keep an eye out for maple and gingerbread lattes in the winter.
Also check out: Chicken Shack, Tomate Fresh Kitchen, 10Q Chicken, Habibi In, Hoosier Mama Pie Company
Feast Your Eyes
niceLena and Friends
You can’t miss this cheerful yellow and turquoise storefront right off of the Dempster L station, where sassy mugs and prayer-style candles of celebrities (ever wanted a Harry Styles shrine in your dorm?) share space with tons of stationery and handmade statement jewelry. Store owner Lena Kim, who calls herself “the wizard of cute,” is known for her earrings made out of origami paper and hanafuda, Japanese playing cards. Kim also offers custom-made mugs and jewelry if you’re looking to surprise your pickiest friends with a gift, and don’t miss the full-size and half-sleeve temporary tattoos by the register.
Bookends & Beginnings
Pop into this Evanston staple that recently opened up a new storefront on Sherman Avenue. Owned by Nina Barrett, the bookstore frequently hosts speakers and authors in its comfortable closed quarters. Whether you want to pop in to chat with the employees or attend a book signing, the store has it all and is in the most convenient location in the center of downtown Evanston.
Also check out: Stepping Out on Faith, Another Time Another Place Antiques, Stumble & Relish
Email: [email protected]
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