“The cry that was heard throughout Wicker Park” is how Earwax Cafe regular Wayne Zuschlag describes the hubbub that followed the closing of that longtime neighborhood staple. It was the uproar from Earwax superfans like Zuschlag that brought the 21-year-old veg-friendly café back from the dead just 11 days after it officially closed.
“The immediate questions were, ‘What? Why?!’ ” says Zuschlag, a 48-year-old architect who started drinking coffee at Earwax when he was 28. “I felt like I was losing an old friend, an integral element of what Wicker Park used to be.”
Shortly after co-owner Cindy Murray’s February 20 announcement that the restaurant would shutter a week later, the Facebook messages poured in. “See you tomorrow and the next day and the next day, until there are no more days,” wrote one grieving regular. Tacked onto a vacant storefront at the corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Honore Street, a large piece of spray-painted canvas appeared reading save earwax xox.
“After we announced we were shutting down,
I realized how important this place is for people. They were very upset,” Murray says. “Everyone wanted to come for their last black-bean burger.”
Murray says the move to close was prompted by a particularly slow winter, which made her question the restaurant’s viability. “When Earwax started, Big Star was a car wash; Cheetah Gym was an indie coffee shop [called] Urbis Orbis,” she says. “The neighborhood has changed so much and I was thinking, Well, maybe Earwax’s time is up.”
For the reboot on March 11, Murray tapped her friend Kurt Guzowski, former executive chef of Landmark, to consult. Guzowski pared down the unwieldy menu to focus on quality over quantity, market vegetables and new, more-sophisticated dishes like a mahi baguette sandwich and housemade biscuits and gravy with duck confit.
It was the biscuits that surprised Iggy Ramos when he dined at Earwax the day it reopened. “It was good,” says the nine-year regular, “trailer food and fine dining on the same plate.” The 34-year-old AT&T installation guy stops for dinner and coffee four times a week after work. Earwax, he says, is his Cheers. “It’s a small enough place where if you go there a few times you get to know people and they get to know you. It keeps the neighborhood together.”
Many seasoned Earwax customers remember when the restaurant, then called Bombadier Cafe, was located directly across Milwaukee Avenue and shared space with Myopic Books and Murray’s record store, Earwax. “Nobody ever called it the Bombadier Cafe,” Murray explains, “so we had to lose the name.” For a time, Earwax also included a video-rental business. “The video store has been closed for, like, five years and people still walk in trying to return old videos,” Ramos says, laughing.
“When I heard Earwax might close, I thought, I have to move to Pilsen or something,” says JoJo Baby, one of the artists who’s become like furniture in Earwax. For years he’s been tromping down from his studio and home upstairs in the Flat Iron Building to bask in the circus-freak decor and sketch diners.
“I can tell you where everything came from in this room because I’ve been here so long,” JoJo says over coffee. “This dragon”—he points to a sculpture mounted on the wall—“the owner found it in a landfill. He saw the horn sticking out of a pile of junk and he kept digging and digging and digging.”
JoJo says he breathed a sigh of relief when Murray reopened. “With Earwax, I still feel like I have a partner in trying to keep the neighborhood alive—and keep it weird.”
Try the new Earwax at the same old location (1561 N Milwaukee Ave, 773-772-4019).