On the Fringe 'Handmade Natural Food, Theory, Manifestos, Poems, Pictures, Music, Performance, Coffee' Is Cafe Voltaire's Motto. Hey, What More Could You Ask For?

By Helbig, Jack | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), April 5, 1996 | Go to article overview

On the Fringe 'Handmade Natural Food, Theory, Manifestos, Poems, Pictures, Music, Performance, Coffee' Is Cafe Voltaire's Motto. Hey, What More Could You Ask For?


Helbig, Jack, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Jack Helbig Daily Herald Correspondent

It's Friday night at the Cafe Voltaire. Upstairs in the clean, bright, brick, metal and neon vegetarian restaurant/coffeehouse, all the tables are filled with hip young couples - and groups of hip young couples - some straight, some gay, some a little bit of both, all burning away the evening with energetic, animated, highly caffeinated conversation.

Tonight the music is retro - the Beatles' White Album - though it's hard to label "Glass Onion," which is currently playing, retro in the same way that ABBA or Tony Bennet are retro.

Meanwhile, downstairs in Cafe Voltaire's dark, womb-like, performance space, with its exposed stone walls, low ceiling, gritty, basement floor and highly eccentric seating - overstuffed couches, comfy armchairs and rows of metal and plastic straight-backed chairs on risers - a seven-member improv troupe called Sophomore Jinx spins out another 50-minute, fully improvised show, based on a single suggestion.

Tonight's theme: vegetarian dining.

The space may not look like much. But out of this dank, dark room have come some of the best, or at least the oddest, fringe theater and performances of Chicago in the '90s: "Under Milkwood," "Schoolhouse Rock," "I'm Sweating Under my Breasts," "The Funky Wordsmiths."

"We try to blur the boundaries here," Voltaire owner Mark Epstein explains. "Blur the genres. Mix it all up.

" 'The Underground performance space: anything can happen.' That was our motto for a while. Now its 'Handmade natural food, theory, manifestos, poems, pictures, music, performance, coffee.' "

'Nothing else like it'

Cafe Voltaire first opened its doors in 1988 in a funky, dirty warehouse on the edges of Bucktown. The place had a much more beatnik feel, with dark lighting, stained overstuffed chairs, rickety cafe tables and lots of yellowing, well-thumbed used books for sale, which no one ever seemed to buy.

In a tiny back-room theater, Oobleck, an exceptionally edgy theater company out of the University of Michigan, performed messy, brilliant shows with names like "The Pope is Not a Eunuch" and "The Slow, Painful Death of Sam Shepard."

At the time, Epstein, then a graduate student in computer science at the University of Chicago, had nothing to do with the place. It was being run - into the ground, as it turned out - by an inspired, but erratic character named Harry Hoch. But the first time Epstein visited the place, he fell in love with it on the spot.

"At the time (the late '80s) there was nothing else like it in Chicago," he said.

Even Starbucks had yet to arrive here. So naturally, Epstein jumped at the chance when he was asked by Hoch, along with a couple of other investors, to put money into a new version of Cafe Voltaire, in the then-booming Lake View neighborhood.

In December of 1989, the new space opened across the street from the notorious "Punkin'" Donuts, where crowds of spikey-haired, safety-pinned high schoolers used to hang in the summers. From the first, Voltaire was a hit with the "angry, young street poet" crowd, and soon after opening, the basement was being used for poetry readings.

Financially, things were a little rockier. The coffee house/restaurant business proved to be a bigger money hole than anyone had planned.

"None of us had experience in the restaurant business," Epstein said, laughing. "We opened this place on $40,000. We should have had at least $200,000."

For the first year, there was a lot of management turmoil as the investors discovered "Harry had sold us a lot of dreams with no relation to reality." But things settled down after Epstein bought everyone else out - using money he was making as a computer programmer - and essentially firing Hoch. …

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