Just like a scene out of the movie Chocolat, two elderly gray-haired women gaze, wide-eyed, through the window at a three-tiered marble-topped table full of chocolates. They're residents at a retirement home next to Marly, a new chocolate shop in Evanston. "I can imagine what'll be going on in that home once we open our doors," says owner Gail Robinson, who recently took her two-year-old mail-order and corporate-gift company, Marly Fine Chocolates of Historic Distinction, from a production basement to this Davis Street storefront. The table the women were so taken with is the store's main display. "It tells the story of the progression of chocolate from bean to finished product," says Robinson. "On top there's a replica of a cocoa tree with giant pods. Then the second tier shows chocolate in the form we use for baking or molding"--thin and thick bars of dark, milk, and white chocolate, along with glazing tabs for melting and shards for decorating. "And the main level, well, that's all the beautiful handcrafted chocolates." There are imported Swiss truffles, toffees, caramels, and crowns (her name for turtles) and dipped almonds, graham crackers, and citrus fruits.
Robinson is bursting with stories about chocolate. She even named the store after a little-known tale she came across while reading up on the subject. Marly was King Louis XIV's Parisian summer palace, where she believes a romance was sealed by chocolate. "Just before Princess Marie-Therese of Spain was to marry the king [in 1660], she gave him a wood box full of cocoa beans, then a commodity secretly held in Spain," she says. The story goes that the king was so intrigued by the sweet drink made from the beans--and smitten by the princess--that he initiated large-scale planting of the crop on the French-ruled island of Martinique.
The marriage brought not only the end of a decades-long war between France and Spain but the widespread emergence of chocolate as a treat: those beans from Martinique were the first to be processed into the solid form we know today. "It was quite a journey, studying the history of chocolate," says Robinson. "It took me from the Mayans in Mexico, where it originated, to the royalty in Spain and finally to the romance of France. I also learned about the cultural significance of chocolate and its association with wisdom, wealth, and passion."
This isn't Robinson's first foray into the world of sweets. In 1984 she and her daughters, Cory Rogin and Michelle Robinson, opened Mrs. Prindable's Caramel Apples, marketed in specialty shops and high-end department stores like Neiman Marcus. After 13 years (during which they had up to 300 employees during the busy season) they sold the business, her daughters went their own ways, and she began searching for a "preretirement" venture.
Robinson had dreamed of owning a retail business since childhood. "When I was eight my father fell ill, and I had to help out by working in our family's fabric and drapery store," she says. "I loved it so much that when my father came back, I would play a make-believe game of store while the other kids were playing outside."
She's accomplished her goal of giving Marly a European feel with rose- and apricot-painted walls, rich cocoa-colored carpeting, and tasteful display cases. A hand-carved Indian bookcase holds gift packages ranging from the Marie Circa 1660 collection (a wood gift box in pastel tones decorated with the royal fleur-de-lis and filled with three pounds of caramels, clusters, and truffles) to the Martinique collection (a more masculine box covered with a tropical painting by Gauguin and filled with bolder chocolates like toffee and nuts), along with smaller gifts.
Next to the retail counter is a dark-stained oversize pine armoire whose doors open to reveal a fondue service--a three-section steamer plus single-serving souffle cups set in individual warmers. Close to a dozen five-foot-tall racks are brimming with Lucite boxes of mouthwatering treats, ready to be packaged and sold by the pound or piece. But the main attraction is the giant table.
All this fills only half of the space; the other half is dedicated to a cafe. There's a brief menu with hot chocolate ("made the real way, with bars of chocolate and real cream," says Robinson), a chilled version of the drink, and three kinds of fondue. She's also working on a prix-fixe deal, a sort of high tea for chocoholics, which will run somewhere in the $15 range. Diners can sit at a 12-foot-long community farm table, at a cafe table in the window, or in two armchairs flanked by bookcases full of information on chocolate. "I wanted to have a place where people come, gather, and have a true chocolate experience," says Robinson.
Marly is at 527 Davis in Evanston, 847-328-3333.
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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.