"What Bob Danon is doing at CHARLIE'S COFFEE HOUSE in Wilmette, is the most exciting thing to happen on the North Shore in generations. He is in a very real sense creating an ongoing musical sensation that recalls the legendary days (and nights) of the Earl of Old Town."

-Rick Kogan of The Chicago Tribune and the WGN Radio Show, SUNDAY PAPERS
May 15, 2005

"Here we are on a Saturday night at Charlie's, which feels suspiciously like a real folk club. I know that sound. That's a folk music club sound. A sound from before the Modern Era, before wife and kids and life insurance. How very strange. How very great. A folk music club in 2005."

-Tom McNamee of the CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
May 30, 2005

Board will review liquor licensing laws

(week of July 7th)

Could a village committee's reversal in one liquor license case signal a change in philosophy on the board?

Village trustees say last week's decision to recommend a liquor license is just the start of a long-term review of licensing laws which became an issue in the spring election and drew criticism for being antiquated and too restrictive.

In coming months, the Judiciary Committee will take on the larger questions of how to modernize and possibly loosen restrictions that were first drawn up in the 1970s when Wilmette first allowed alcohol sales.

Language that attempts to limit liquor to full service restaurants and prohibits it in diners and coffee shops didn't envision the kinds of establishments that now draw evening entertainment in many areas.

"It's kind of a stale ordinance. The language is hard to work with," said committee member John Levin.

Another troublesome feature of the law states that alcohol sales must be "incidental" to the service of food. That raises questions of how much food has to be served and whether an after-dinner customer should have to buy food at all to order a beer. Other North Shore area communities have taken approaches that limit the size of bar areas in restaurants or the percentage of sales that alcohol can represent.

In April, voters elected five new trustees on the six-member board, and a new village president. Liquor sales was one of a series of issues focused on business development and the need for more sales tax revenue. Most candidates said they were open to reconsidering existing laws.

Chairman Alan Swanson said the Judiciary Committee wants to get a better handle on public opinion. Past surveys found little support for allowing full bars or nightclubs, but many people supported the application by Bob Danon for his coffee house, and say too much business is being lost to Evanston or Chicago.

A recent market study of the village found that Wilmette has fallen behind its potential capacity for restaurants and other food businesses, and some speculate that the uncertain case-by-case nature of licensing discourages some restaurant operators.

"What we want to see is what else has been done in our surrounding communities as far as modernizing those ordinances and see what makes sense for us," Swanson said.

Swanson said the committee's endorsement of a request by Charlie's Coffee House isn't a rewrite of the policy or a stretch of interpretation, because owner Bob Danon was able to show how he met certain requirements on size and how food is served. "It was important to base our findings on the current ordinance because for now that's the law and we thought he qualified under that," Swanson said.

Change seen on alcohol policy

(week of July 7th)

Patrons who want to enjoy an alcoholic drink while listening to folk music in Wilmette may soon have that opportunity.

The Judiciary Committee for the new Village Board has reversed a December decision and recommended a liquor license to Charlie's Coffee House, 1126 Central Ave.

The three-member committee voted unanimously June 28 to recommend the Class B license for beer and wine to Bob Danon, who operates the coffee house in a space adjacent to his downtown frame and art store.

"The new Judiciary Committee members took 45 minutes to accomplish in a positive, respectful environment what the members couldn't accomplish in three meetings over a period of four months that were steeped with arrogance, lack of factual information and just plain fiscal irresponsibility," Danon said.

The recommendation will go before the full board for a vote Aug. 23. If approved, the license could be granted in September.

Danon, who sought the license to serve his weekend folk music and jazz crowd, said he feels he got a more reasonable hearing under a committee that has all new members.

"The new board members showed a vision and understanding of the issues, goals and needs of Wilmette, while the previous group lacked any real vision and seemed to be more concerned with their personal agendas ... whatever they were."

The previous committee included trustees John Jacoby, Beth Lambrecht and Bernard Michna, who are no longer on the board. At the time of their denial, they said Danon's application appeared to fall short of several requirements intended to limit liquor to full-service restaurants.

Those requirements included alcohol being only "incidental and complementary to the sale and consumption of meals," and the ordinance specifically excludes luncheonettes, diners, coffee shops and drive-ins.

Ed Holstein

Sing along if you know the words -- we won't tell

May 30, 2005

This is a big night at Charlie's Coffee House in Wilmette. Ed Holstein is on the bill. Ed sings and plays guitar and tells stories that make people laugh. My wife and I show up early to get a table up front, near the tiny stage tucked in the front window and away from the noisy refrigerator. Charlie's Coffee House is about the size of our living room.

The place fills up fast. Fans of Ed going back 40 years crowd in, and the club's owner, Bob Danon, has to squeeze another couple of people at a table here, find another chair there.

I order coffee because Bob can't sell beer yet, and settle in. My ears perk up at the faint sound of a guitar in a back room -- Ed tuning up.

I know that sound. That's a folk music club sound. A sound from before the Modern Era, before wife and kids and life insurance.

How very strange. How very great.

A folk music club in 2005.

Folk music, as everybody knows, is dopey and dead, having been done in by its own falseness and preciousness, an artistic bankruptcy perfectly captured in the hilarious movie "A Mighty Wind."

But here we are on a Saturday night at Charlie's, which feels suspiciously like a real folk club, and here comes Ed, climbing up on stage like those days never ended, and here I am, happy as can be.

Because -- and I'm coming out of the closet here -- I like folk music.

Grim tales to a cha cha beat

Ed goes right into an upbeat blues called "Hey Roll Me Over" that morphs into something called "Drop Down Mama," and I am captivated by his guitar work, the way he picks so easy and sure.

Ed learned to play like that back during the Kennedy administration, hanging out with his older brother Fred at a guitar store on the South Side called the Fret Shop. I know this for a fact because I wrote the Sun-Times obit when Fred, Chicago's one true folk singer, died last year.

Between songs, Ed does that folk singer thing -- he plucks out a gentle groove and talks over it. He laments, like he's reading my mind, that people think folk music is "all whishy," and points out that even the most shamelessly commercial folk groups of the 1960s, like the Kingston Trio in their striped shirts and chinos, told some pretty grim tales. Consider "Tom Dooley," Ed says, in which the Kingston Trio "told the story of a brutal murder to the backdrop of a cha cha beat."

After a while, Ed plays a Bob Dylan song, "Buckets of Rain," and that reminds him of the night Dylan dropped by the Earl of Old Town on Wells Street to catch Fred's act. Dylan slipped out before the set was over, much to Fred's disappointment, but left behind the glass in which he'd drunk orange juice, much to the delight of the club's owner, Earl Pionke. Earl grabbed the glass and said he was going to sell it for big money, and he did. "He sold about 1,200 of them," Ed says.

Chicago's folk music scene roared along in the 1960s and early 1970s but was losing its audience by 1978, when I started coming around.

I made it to the Earl of Old Town only once, sitting at the bar at a Bob Gibson and Hamilton Camp reunion concert. A single beer at the Earl, I discovered, cost one billion dollars.

I liked a tiny basement joint on Lincoln Avenue where the phenomenal Michael Smith sometimes sang, and I loved Holstein's, a club owned by Ed, Fred and their younger brother, Alan. Holstein's was especially great on weekday nights when there was no cover and the entertainment was the house act -- Fred.

But now, folk music is so uncool that even an early Dylan classic is half forgotten. On stage at Charlie's, Ed tells us about a young club manager he met recently ("I told him he was born the year I bought the pants I was wearing") who said he liked the way Ed sang "Don't Think Twice."

"Great song," the young guy said to Ed. "One of yours?"

Ed was stunned by the very question, but quickly recovered.

"Yep," he told the kid. "And I got about 500 more."

Perfect, quiet songs

While Ed sings, Bob has been darting about. He serves food. He plays with the sound system. He ducks out to the sidewalk to tell somebody the show's all sold out. Does this guy ever sit still to enjoy his own club?

Finally, though, Bob sits back in a big chair up front and just listens to Ed, the way he's been listening to Ed most of his adult life. When they were both much younger, Bob casually informs the audience while Ed pauses to tune his guitar, Ed dropped by his apartment one day and ended up crashing on his couch for weeks, maybe months. Bob saw it as his contribution to music.

Before calling it a night, Ed sings a few more songs, the quiet kind I like most. He sings his own fine song, "Jazzman." He sings John Prine's perfect song about perfect conversation, "A Good Time." He sings Michael Smith's haunting "Spoon River." Most of us at Charlie's know the words, and a few of us sing along. Ed won't mind.

A hootenanny, whatever that is, sounds like something I'd like to avoid. A sing-along is for a campfire. But the kind of thing happening now -- people joining in because they can't help themselves -- that's what used to happen on all the best nights at all the best clubs.

Maybe Charlie's, a year old in June, is that kind of club.

Tom McNamee's "The Chicago Way" column runs Mondays in the Sun-Times

Coffee, guitars blend in suburban folk outpost


When Bob Danon mulled over ideas to expand his business in downtown Wilmette about a year ago, he already had a starting point from his well-established frame shop and art gallery, but he figured any new venture should offer people something they couldn't get anywhere else in town.

In a suburban landscape overgrown with corporate franchise coffee shops, he thought an independent would be welcome. As in most North Shore business districts dominated by traditional retail and service establishments, there was little to do after hours, so he tried late nights on Fridays and brought in a few guitar players.

In its first six months, Charlie's Coffee House, at 1126 Central Ave., exceeded expectations, becoming a suburban outpost of old school Chicago folk music.

Danon said he considered the coffee shop after reading a survey the Chamber of Commerce did two years ago.

"A lot of the people said 'I wish there was something to do at night,' which is always a big issue here in Wilmette. They also said we'd like to have a coffee house, a real coffee house. I thought 'I got the art gallery next door, I could do this.' I've been in the restaurant business before. I had this design in mind and I opened this thing up and people are sort of blown away. It's like a '60s and '70s type of coffee house."

Two businesses

He's still in the art business, displaying and selling pieces out of the coffee shop and framing in the neighboring space. Charlie's serves up Intelligentsia coffee and a menu of sandwiches, salads and desserts.

"Charlie" isn't some fictional marketing character. He's real and usually somewhere on the premises, but the 9-year-old English springer spaniel is barred from the establishment by health codes, so he minds the frame workshop from a nylon folding chair.

Part of the concept is creating a refuge from aggravation, and to that end, Danon made the shop a "cell-free zone."

"We had one or two people leave in a huff, but for the most part, people seem to appreciate it and abide by it," Danon said.

Along the same lines, wild and unsupervised children are not especially welcome.

Folk music draw

Opening at 7 a.m. weekdays, Charlie's gets a smattering of commuters, a large morning crowd of moms and a lunch business, but it took off as a music venue when Danon began booking musicians for Friday nights. One of the front window platforms serves as a small stage, and the playbill is mostly folk and bluegrass, including well-known veterans from the scene which thrived in Chicago in the Vietnam War era. One of them is Ed Holstein, who helped run some of the old city clubs and teaches at the Old Town School of Folk music.

"I think it's terrific that there's a venue for a city folk singers to ply our trade and it just reminds me of the old days so much when my brothers and Steve Goodman and myself had a club called Somebody Else's Troubles. It was the same type of deal," Holstein said.

"There's so many talented people in Chicago and there's so many people out in the suburbs that are in a certain age group and maybe some younger people who appreciate it," he added.

Future plans

Other recent bookings included Eric Lugosch, who plays a style called stride guitar and is considered one of the best in the country, Danon said. Upcoming offerings include bluegrass performers such as Chip Covington on Jan. 21 and others that include classical strings and jazz. Most charge $10 covers and with about 36 seats, reservations are recommended.
So far Friday is the only late night with an 11 p.m. closing for Charlie's, but Danon plans to expand Saturdays to 10 p.m. and add an earlier open mike on Monday nights next month. In February, he wants to roll out two Wednesday nights a month, one for family board games and the other as a discussion group.

Trustees refuse liquor license for a downtown coffee shop


The Wilmette Village Board last week dealt a blow to plans to offer more adult refreshments at a local coffee shop.

Charlie's Coffee House has been providing live entertainment Friday evenings, and sought a license to serve beer and wine in addition to cappuccino. Village ordinance limits such licensing to full-service restaurants.

After a series of meetings with the board's Judiciary Committee, trustees declined owner Bob Danon's application for a beer and wine license, saying Charlie's fell outside of the ordinance requirements on too many counts.

The ordinance only allows licenses for restaurants when alcohol sales are "incidental and complimentary to the sale and consumption of meals," and have several definitions geared toward larger full-service restaurants such as nondisposable tableware, waiting or busing of tables and at least 40 seats.

The wording also excludes "luncheonettes, diners, coffee shops and drive-ins."

Too big a stretch

Trustees who voted against the proposal said creating a license for Charlie's would have required stretching the ordinance to the breaking point.

"I voted against it because as our ordinance stands right now, what he is asking us to do is set a new precedent," said Beth Lambrecht. "Whether an applicant is a nice guy or not can't come into an application. If we granted Charlie's a license, it would have a ripple effect that would erode the ordinance."

Danon said he felt the process seemed to create a moving target and ignored possibilities for reasonable accommodation. He said the village has made significant exceptions for other restaurants and feels the board should be assisting efforts to liven up business districts rather than clinging to the letter of an antiquated law.

At a time when village budgets are straining and turning to sales and property tax hikes, the decision will let entertainment revenue continue to slip away to Evanston and Skokie, Danon said.

"More and more people are moving here from the city, and they're looking for things to do," Danon said. "This is something to do that's clean and wholesome and the best thing that's happened to this village center in the 8 1/2 years I've been here."

Campaign issue

He's not likely to let the issue drop. He has gathered more than 1,000 signatures for his beer and wine license case and will seek to make licensing part of the business development issue in the spring election for trustees and village president.

The Chamber of Commerce and a number of downtown business owners urged trustees to reexamine the liquor regulations. Candace Merza, an owner of Dinner at Eight, said something needs to be done to make reasonable accommodations for alcohol sales. Her business was able to get a special category of license to allow wine tasting along with cooking demonstrations.

"As grownups when we go out for entertainment or lunch, we don't want to be told we can't have a glass of wine," Merza said.

Trustees said they weren't prepared to make an immediate change for Danon's case, but would develop a new survey to tap residents' opinion on the issue.

Trustee John Jacoby said one reason he voted against exceptions for Danon was that a 2001 survey seemed to indicate strong support for keeping liquor sales regulations as they are. He noted the village allowed no sales until the early 1970s when a referendum cleared the way for package sales and sale with food. Opinion has always been much less favorable to expanded sales such as in taverns.

Village President Nancy Canafax said liquor licensing cannot be approached lightly because of the safety risks involved.

"This isn't like a zoning case. This is regulation of a controlled substance," Canafax said

1126 Central Ave.
Wilmette, IL 60091

847 256 5617

CHARLIE'S COFFEE HOUSE of Wilmette offering
great coffee, darned good food, and live music