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Counter Culture

Cocoa Buff


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Through a clear diffuser inside a glass teapot, a dozen jasmine "pearls"--tea leaves rolled tightly into bound balls--suddenly unfurl into long strips. "I did a lot of research on tea and discovered this process, called agonizing the leaves," says Robert Davis, owner of the six-month-old Unique So Chique clothing store and tea shop.

Passersby would never guess from the skirts, shirts, and accessories visible from Unique's Wilson Street storefront that there's a cafe hiding in the back. It's only once you've entered the place that you might notice the sign--Tea and Chocolate Room--above the door to the back room.

Tea is new turf for Davis but retail isn't. While working on his MBA in marketing at Dominican University in River Forest, he was an assistant buyer and house artist (he made ornaments and furniture) for Home Bodies, a now defunct gift shop on Halsted. "The whole time," he says, "it was always in the back of my mind to open my own business." In 2000 he opened Unique Findings, a home accessory, fine gift, and baby gift shop on Wilson. Davis is closing that store on March 20 and adding some of its merchandise--children's gifts, bath and body products, and candles--to Unique So Chique's inventory.

Looking around the north side, Davis noticed there was a niche that needed filling. "When Villa Kula closed, tea drinkers really didn't have anywhere to go," he says. He started looking into tea shops and discovered that "they're springing up all over, especially in California and New York." After some online research and conversations with reps from tea manufacturers he learned that in Asia chocolate is usually eaten with tea, which doesn't overpower the delicate flavors of fine chocolate the way coffee can.

It took Davis four months to convert the former Uptown Chicago Commission office into a cozy space with a jewelry counter, dressing rooms, and a candy counter. He built much of the furniture himself and painted teacups onto the cafe's fluorescent lights. Antique shelves display chocolates, teas, and other stuff for sale. "I love traveling to different countries to find items for the shelves," he says. The front room is stocked with men's and women's clothing by designers from various places, including England, Italy, and Chicago. There's handmade jewelry by local designer Susan Fitch and fragrances from small and large perfume houses ("only the most current ones," says Davis).

His kitchen is limited at the moment to a double burner, microwave, and toaster oven. He serves baked goods from Red Hen and Alpha Baking, creative omelets, and a few gourmet sandwiches like one with mozzarella, tomato slices, and fresh basil on a kaiser roll and another with shaved carrot, yellow bell pepper, and Asian pear on a wheat croissant. Most of the chocolates are made on the premises. "Our turtles put Godiva's to shame," says Davis.

The cafe also serves afternoon tea from 3 to 5 PM Saturday and Sunday. ("This is not high tea, as some people call it," Davis points out. High tea is traditionally a heavier meal, served from 5 to 7 PM.) Davis's afternoon goodies, served on tiered platters, include an assortment of scones, pastries, and finger sandwiches. The teas from Te Teas range in price from $10 to $15 per pot.

Right next door to Unique is a Starbucks. That doesn't worry Davis. "Customers will walk in with their Starbucks cups and actually apologize," he says. "They don't have to--Starbucks has turned out to be a big draw for us." He's hoping all those coffee lovers will go through the same transformation he has. Though he's partial to black tea now, he never used to be a big fan of any kind of tea. "I'm a coffee drinker," he says. Unique So Chique serves his favorite, a blend from Intelligentsia.

Unique So Chique is at 4600 N. Magnolia, Suite C, 773-561-0324.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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