Best of Evanston 2021

Each year, we celebrate the vibrant economy in our city — we’re always so appreciative of the business owners and employees that help make Evanston unique. But this year, we couldn’t proceed as if things were business as usual.

As we prepared to launch our surveys, we realized some longtime BOE winners weren’t going to be options anymore. Since our last Best of Evanston, the city’s landscape has changed dramatically as a result of COVID-19. In recognition of that, we wanted to commemorate just a few of the dozens of local businesses that have shuttered their doors since the beginning of the pandemic.

In my time at The Daily, I’ve had the chance to cover all sorts of Evanston retailers, and I’ve seen firsthand the impact they’ve had on the community. As I’ve watched their numbers dwindle over the last 13 months, I’ve remembered the stories I’ve been told about each of them. This year, we’ve collected a handful of the stories our staff has about some of the locations we’ve lost. In reading them, I hope you remember the impact local businesses have had on your life.

More than just remembering, I also hope you take this chance to celebrate the amazing businesses that have survived the pandemic so far. We still have five categories you voted on, and I’d encourage you to take a trip to visit the winners to learn more about what makes them so impactful. Once you visit them, find other small businesses to venture to next — because they’re an integral part of what keeps Evanston so amazing. And they need your help to survive.

- Jacob Fulton, Best of Evanston editor

Best Restaurant, Best Bite For Your Buck: Tomate Fresh Kitchen

Credit: Lauren Duquette

There are few news events that have spread across Northwestern Twitter quite like the time Tomate Fresh Kitchen announced it was closing, then re-opening, then delaying re-opening, then officially opening once again. The Noyes joint, famous in Evanston for its well-portioned burritos, has a unique hold on undergrads and community members compared to the area’s other Latin restaurants.

I am ashamed to admit I came to know Tomate only after moving from deep South Campus to an apartment near Foster-Walker during my senior year. I had long heard about the delicious burritos and tacos, but never challenged myself to actually try it. But after just the first bite I took into the pillowy soft tortilla, sharply salted carne asada, fluffy rice, thick beans and mild red salsa, I was hooked. You would think that first taste is the best, but true fans know that every bite contains a bit of heaven, down to the last ends of the tortilla.

For those who haven’t had the chance to be floored by a great plate of food in a while, I highly recommend the asada, chiles relleno or fried tofu burritos, although you really can’t go wrong with any of the available options. Treat yourself to an horchata or a Jarritos to wash down your food. As we saw in the cold, dark weeks before the restaurant’s March re-opening, Tomate’s menu is a gift that we cannot take for granted.

In Evanston, I don’t use the Spanish pronunciation of my name very often. But every time I walk to the counter to pick up my weighted bag of burritos, tacos and chips and say the order is for “Mah-ree-sa,” I feel that much more enveloped by the warmth Mexican American food always brings me.

– Marissa Martinez

Best Drunchies: Chicken Shack

Credit: Sophia Mann

Livers, gizzards, fries, oh my! Evanston Chicken Shack is perfect for anybody looking for deep-fried mains with a heavy-handed side of crinkle cut fries. The homely restaurant, located at 1925 Ridge Avenue, is just a few minutes west from campus and boasts an extensive spread of fried catfish, chicken and vegetables, all available past midnight 6 days a week.

For students from the South, the chicken is a pleasant return to crunchy, crispy, oil-drenched and floured-up goodness. For others, it’s an introduction to how soul food should be done: hot, messy and stuffed into a paper takeaway box. Customers can peek inside the kitchen to see authentic fried chicken that is freshly floured and deeply fried upon ordering.

The first time I visited Evanston Chicken Shack was with soul food virgins. I pointed at the marquee board menu, plucked a paper clip-art brochure from the counter and told them that this is what soul food really is. It’s where students find out that it’s normal to eat spaghetti and garlic bread with fried chicken and fried catfish. It’s also where students fight over whether gizzards and livers are appropriate for a midnight snack.

But fear not — if meat and chicken entrails makes you squeamish, there are plenty of alternatives. Patrons can also order classic sides like mac n’ cheese, spaghetti, and warm buttermilk buns. And you’re feeling particularly indulgent, there’s a daily rotation of cheesecake for dessert.

And remember: don’t forget the hot sauce.

- Alex Perry

Best Dessert: Bennison's

I took my first trip to Bennison’s Bakery last fall. The line wrapped around the corner and the wait lasted for 20 minutes — a short line for a Saturday morning, I later learned. The crowd was hushed, almost reverent.

The bakery, a family-owned establishment that smells like magic and sounds like an old movie, has been around since 1938. Warm light glows from within the bakery; the tall, retro neon sign posted over its entrance feels nostalgic. Glazed croissants, pastries dusted with powdered sugar, rich cakes and bursting tarts beckon. I once tried to count the number of treats on display in the bakery’s windows to pass the time in that long line, but I Iost track after I hit 150.

My Italian pastry chef grandfather raised me on fresh home-baked cannolis, spice cookies and danishes — but Doug Spoto has some serious competition here. The pumpkin donut I bought on my first visit to the bakery was life-changingly good. The ambiance? Even better. I’m now a regular.

When I think of Bennison’s, I think of community. Friends have met me to exchange Bennison’s donuts in the pouring rain, our paper bags soaked but our donuts still miraculously intact. I’ve taken dates to the bakery, caught up with acquaintances in that long, long line and even taken refuge from the wind tunnel that is Maple Avenue within Bennison’s doors.

In every way, Bennison’s is an unparalleled establishment - and if you don’t believe me, meet me there.

– Maia Spoto

Hidden Gem: Bookends and Beginnings

Credit: Anushuya Thappa

My friends have to keep an eye on me whenever I enter a local bookstore, for fear that I will leave with more books — and significantly less in my wallet. Bookends & Beginnings, tucked in an alley off Sherman Avenue, is no exception.

Bookends is everything an indie bookstore is supposed to be: cozy and warm with wooden floors groaning under the weight of the books, every empty crevice filled with merchandise boasting literary puns.

Founded by Nina Barrett (Medill ‘87), the store is every book lover's dream. You can find everything from brand-new hardcovers to classics, children’s books to biographies. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, the friendly employees will happily find it or try to order it for you.

And Bookends hasn’t just survived the pandemic — it’s thrived. Barrett opened up a new storefront right on Sherman Avenue in early 2021, full of fun cards, socks, puzzles and other treasures.

It’s the perfect escape from the stressors of everyday life: a cozy respite on a snowy winter day, and a fun stop on a sunny walk in the spring. Even amid a rainstorm or after a tough week of class, it’s impossible to be unhappy while inside Bookends. There’s always something to put a smile on your face, whether it’s finding a funny T-shirt or spotting your favorite childhood picture book. Bookends and Beginnings is one of Evanston’s crown jewels, so make sure to stop in and shop local.

- Haley Fuller

"As I’ve watched their numbers dwindle over the last 13 months, I’ve remembered the stories I’ve been told about each of them. This year, we’ve collected a handful of the stories our staff has about some of the locations we’ve lost. In reading them, I hope you remember the impact local businesses have had on your life."

In Memoriam: Andy's Frozen Custard

Credit: Joshua Hoffman

Picture this: you’re a college freshman failing Spanish 101-1. After you cry into your pillow, questioning your choices in life that have led you here, how do you convince yourself that attending Northwestern wasn’t a mistake? Do you: A) make friends B) change your major or C) go get a frozen custard?

If you chose C, you chose right. Andy’s Frozen Custard, the unchallenged owner of the Best of Evanston dessert slot for six years, lent itself to ten beautiful years in Evanston before closing in April 2020. The desert chain was arguably THE most popular Evanston restaurant among students –– it was certainly my most visited place in the city –– and a quintessential part of Northwestern culture.

Andy’s was a short walk from campus, ready for you to duck in and grab a pick-me-up. The store sold sundaes, but its claim to fame were its Concretes, mounds of frozen custard blended with toppings. Each one, from queer icon BootDaddy to the strawberry-blended Snowmonster was a top tier snack, perfect for eating your feelings with. Trekking through snow to get to Andy’s and sitting on the wooden bench at the back of the store, eating your Concrete under the weirdly harsh fluorescent lighting, was a pivotal Evanston experience.

Unlike most business shutdowns last year, Andy’s didn’t close because of the pandemic –– the chain opted not to renew its lease when it expired. I mourn for the freshman who never got to experience Evanston with it, and as I prepare for graduation, I remember the times I turned to Andy’s when it felt like my life was falling apart. Andy’s was a reliable king, and although the store abandoned us in a time of need, I don’t think I’d have survived Northwestern without it.

– Wilson Chapman

In Memoriam: Barnes and Noble

Credit: Anushuya Thappa

My doomsday instinct didn’t kick in when my dorm shut down last March when Andy’s closed, or even when my family started rationing toilet paper. No, the real end times didn’t begin until the Evanston Barnes & Noble closed late last April. I still don’t know what my college life is without triweekly trips behind the wood-paneled pearly gates.

Let me take all of the pretension one might expect from me in a rousing defense of independent bookstores, and instead channel it into the following statement: Barnes & Noble is an emotion, not a chain. There’s something so soothing about having one no matter where I go. The lighting pushes fluorescence to its warmest tones. The benches in the magazine section are prime people-watching territory. The teen section is nostalgically underwhelming. It’s like a portal to a world designed by Ramona Quimby, in collaboration with your favorite English teacher and your therapist.

And so, dear Barnes & Noble, thank you for letting me smuggle Colectivo lattes into your café for marathon study sessions. Thank you for letting me hide among the nonfiction shelves for Zen breathing between interviews. Thank you for teaching me about the Mariko Aoki phenomenon and for reminding me that if I can’t shop for someone in your stationery section, we shouldn’t be friends.

Every day, I take my silly little walk downtown, check Sherbucks for your spinach-and-feta stuffed pretzels and contemplate my place in this continued booksellers’ diaspora – with occasional pilgrimages to your Skokie-Old Orchard location to tide me over.

– Ilana Arougheti

In Memoriam: Burger King

Credit: Noah Frick-Alofs

A beacon of greasy hope in a town where nearly everything else closes at eleven, the Evanston Burger King on Clark Street was the best late-night drunchies establishment near Northwestern last year. And now, it’s gone.

“Fast” food is a misnomer for this particular Burger King. It often took 10 to 20 minutes just to get a milkshake and chicken fries. But maybe that’s because every other person at the party you just left is also there, ordering the same thing you ordered. The plastic tables were always sticky, the bathroom always smelled, but it was the perfect place to go on a Saturday night (or Tuesday night, no judgment!) to satisfy that fried-food craving.

When the pandemic started, Burger King swiftly lost much of its charm. Who needs an after-party snack when there’s no party to go to? It closed permanently in December of 2020, and remains vacant to this day.

My roommates and I, however, found a way for it to live on. When we moved off-campus at the beginning of winter quarter, we spotted a discarded, six foot by six foot sign in BK’s dumpster. We knew we had to rescue it. After much finagling, and a borrowed step-ladder, it now lives on our enclosed porch.

When one of my roommates tweeted about the pilfered sign, Burger King replied, “pls take care of her.” And we will. Through her, the memory of Evanston’s Burger King will become immortal.

-Jordan Mangi

In Memoriam: Century 12 Theater

Credit: Maia Spoto

Of all of the changes to the Evanston landscape this year, the dimmed lights of Century 12 Evanston’s marquee hit me the hardest.

The theater’s closing wasn’t a surprise, exactly. Pandemic restrictions prompted Century 12 to close indefinitely last March, before its termination of its contract with Stockbridge Capital Group made the shuttered doors permanent. Distributors opted to send their movies to streaming services, and box office revenues were nowhere near their pre-pandemic marks, dealing a crippling blow to a pillar of the Evanston community.

As the only theater within walking distance of Northwestern’s campus, Century 12 was embedded in the Evanston community and an easy option for impromptu movie cravings. Watching movies in the enclave of a dark, distraction-free theater provided needed, truly immersive escapes from the stresses of college life. And with $5 Tuesdays each week, the price was nearly unbeatable.

The adrenaline of “Ford v Ferrari” left me breathless in each of the racing scenes and ready to drive right after. The late night showing of “Joker” invoked another sensation — total fear — as I sat slumped all the way down in my seat for most of the runtime. And the social aspects of watching those movies, the half-mile walks and the hot takes after, made those nights even better.

Watching movies on HBO Max just isn’t the same.

– John Riker

In Memoriam: La Macchina Cafe

Credit: Brian Meng

Oh, La Macchina. La Macc. La hallowed alcohol-encrusted ground. How I will miss the moonlit metamorphosis from charming neighborhood ristorante to overcrowded college bar

La Macchina Café was a jack of all trades, tickling the senses of Orrington Avenue with aromatic and mouth-watering autentica cucina Italiana, lively jazz on weekday evenings and a vintagely playful pub-meets-wine-bar ambiance. It was a venue for families, couples, foodies, musicians and students alike, possessing an astonishing ability to transport our wayward souls to Rome by day (and something resembling a Big Ten town by night).

I pity the Wildcats who will never taste the sweet sausage and perfectly cooked eggs of a La Macc “Boozy Brunch,” where the orange juice for the mimosas runs out almost immediately but the André flows perpetually. They will never know the anxious thrill of being dragged to an a cappella concert in the dimly-lit underbelly of your restaurant, only to see their crush sitting uncomfortably on the concrete floor (because of course there are only 10 folding chairs supplied). They will never have their life flash before their eyes after a behemoth football player accidentally bumps them off the booth they were both dancing on. And they will never bite into a pillowy gnocchi on a cold winter quarter evening, thankful for your delicious takeout.

On my very first night of college, I entered your crowded doors with nothing more than a mere Wildcard, facing a lawless terrain of blaring club music, randomly elevated surfaces and dancing first-years packed together. I will never forget the smell — sweat, watered-down vodka and possibility (with a hint of sottocenere al tartufo). On the alignment chart, you fell perfectly into the category of chaotic good in a city that consistently ranks in the neutral evil category. In just eight years, you left a mark that will be felt in perpetuity.

To La Macc — I raise a forkful of Ravioli di Zucca Mantovani and a glass of champagne (with a drop of Tropicana) to you. Sogni d’oro, amore.

- Daisy Conant

In Memoriam: Panera Bread

When I was constantly ill my freshman year, only one restaurant had the comfort food I needed to get me through it: Panera Bread. I cannot begin to express the excessive amount of broccoli cheddar soup I consumed swaddled within my twin XL sheets. But nothing so satisfying comes without a price.

In my case, the price was food poisoning. Yes, every single time I went to Panera, I left feeling worse than I had before. I could never exactly pinpoint which item was the culprit, but something tells me it didn’t matter. Did that stop me from going back? No. Call it a college student’s juice cleanse.

A sad reminder of the lack of affordable dining options in Evanston for a college student’s budget, I lament the loss of Panera. It was a satisfying escape from the dining hall, and I appreciated the walkability and familiarity of the restaurant.

Still, I wouldn’t say I was really shocked that Panera closed. Two and a half stars on Yelp don’t reveal much love for the Evanston location, but the loss is tragic nonetheless. A part of me misses my Fuji Apple Salad with Chicken, a simple meal that also reminded me of many take-out nights at home.

My stomach, however? It’s probably grateful.

– Meher Yeda

In Memoriam: Unicorn Cafe

Credit: Colin Boyle

In winters past, Unicorn Cafe’s wide, foggy windows served as an invitation into the Evanston mainstay’s toasty interior. Though the haze often masked the independent coffee shop’s contents to outside eyes, upon entry, students could be sure to receive a warm cup of joe, a tasty baked treat and free WiFi.

But not this winter.

After nearly 30 years in Evanston, Unicorn Cafe’s once-fogged windows remain clear, now offering only a glimpse into the sadly familiar sight of an abandoned storefront.

When Unicorn Cafe’s doors officially closed in September, amid the pandemic-driven recession and after concerns of dwindling city support for independent businesses, Downtown Evanston lost not only a coffeehouse, but a communal space.

The musical talents of Northwestern students occasionally reverberated off those big windows, filling Unicorn Cafe with the sounds of whichever open mic the store happened to be hosting that particular weekend.

Its cozy atmosphere, ample seating and seasonal drinks also made it a prime study spot before the pandemic hit.

When news of its closure broke, one Twitter account recalled the shop as the University marching band’s “go-to spot” for coffee before practice, just one of many who lamented the loss on social media. After the well-loved cafe brewed its last pot of coffee, many realized just how short their time with Unicorn had been.

Students can still choose from a wide array of coffeehouses off and around campus — but none quite like Unicorn Cafe. As the name suggests, Unicorn Cafe captured a unique spirit not found among the city’s selection of other shops, both independent and chain. There may never be another Unicorn, but its memory will live on in those who graced those small, circular tables with a cup of coffee and a mountain of work.

- James Pollard

In Memoriam: Whiskey Thief

Credit: Andrea Michelson

When my parents came to Evanston for their first-ever Family Weekend my freshman year, they asked me where I wanted to meet them for dinner. I had been on campus for just a few weeks and didn’t know the city’s food scene well enough to make the call. So I asked some senior staffers at The Daily for recommendations.

“Whiskey Thief,” one editor suggested, and several others then nodded in support.

I took their advice and went to Whiskey Thief Tavern, which closed last year. Two of my friends joined me, and I remember joking with them about how much better this meal was than our typical dinner at Allison Dining Hall. I ordered a rigatoni dish — the sauce was delicious — and we traded around a huge pile of sweet potato fries. My mom ended the night with some vanilla ice cream, extra caramel sauce.

From then on, Whiskey Thief became my family’s go-to spot in Evanston, and we’d often eat there when they came to visit. It’s cheesy, but I associate the restaurant with that first time my parents saw me laughing with new friends, enjoying my first few months in college.

But unfortunately, Whiskey Thief is now a thing of the past. We won’t get the chance to watch more sports games on their many flat screen TVs, and we won’t be able to slip into those dimly-lit booths and munch on some wings.

So long, Whiskey Thief. My family and I — and the rest of Evanston — will miss you.

- Sophia Scanlan