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August 15, 2006 > Essanay Café: a fusion of past and present

Essanay Café: a fusion of past and present

by Todd Griffin

A first glance at the menu of the new Essanay Café takes one back to small town mid-America. Eggs and bacon, pancake stacks, hamburgers, and fries have been standard fare for Main Street cafés for as long as any of us can remember. But a closer look reveals the addition of several low fat and vegetarian offerings as well as more exotic dishes such as Dutch Baby soufflé, mustard grilled salmon, chicken linguini, and a sweet and spicy chicken sandwich with Jamaican jerk seasoning and pineapple chutney. This theme of melding old and new is also reflected in the location and décor, part of the reason Essanay bills itself as "excellent eclectic dining."

The café takes its name from Essanay Film Company, established in Niles in 1912 by George Spoor and "Bronco Billy" Anderson, who used the first letters of their last names (S and A) to create the unusual company name. During its four-year stay, the Essanay film studio made dozens of films in Niles, featuring big-name actors of the time like Bronco Billy, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, and Ben Turpin. But it is most remembered for producing Charlie Chaplin silent films, many of which were filmed in downtown Niles.

The building housing the café was built about the same time Chaplin began hamming for the cameras and perfecting his trademark "penguin walk" on the sidewalk outside. It was a men's clothing store, or haberdashery, at the time, and it is likely Chaplin and other actors shopped there. The film studio moved to Hollywood in 1916, leaving a lasting legacy in Niles. The haberdashery survived many subsequent incarnations over the next 90 years, including a hardware store and donut shop, before opening its doors as the Essanay Café this summer.

The café is the brainchild of Bruce Cates, long-time Niles resident, community activist, and historical preservationist. "I've put a lot of effort into anything that looked like or felt like the studio era," said Cates, including creation of the Silent Film Museum and the Silent Film Festival. Cates sees this rich history as a foundation on which to build a flourishing future. "What Niles is, and will become more so in the future," he predicted, "is a destination point."

Located on the Main Street in downtown Niles, the café is open for breakfast and lunch only, pending its license to serve beer and wine. When the license is granted -- expected soon -- it will open for dinner. Chef Gerard Leynes plans a dinner menu of traditional favorites, complemented by more adventurous dishes. Co-owner David Price describes the food as "classy but not snobby. It's good, healthy food. I think wholesome is the right word. We're using the very best ingredients, fresh market ingredients, and a very imaginative menu."

They have also chosen not to cut corners on the infrastructure. To ensure the proper heat to make paninis that highlight the lunch menu, they imported a machine from Italy. Essanay Café's interior features Victorian lighting and historical photos to reinforce the studio-era theme.

The owners share a passion for using the past as a springboard to the future. "I'm trying to bring something to Niles besides just a sleepy little town," said Cates. "My biggest hope is that other restaurateurs will see this, they'll see the future. My invitation to all those restaurateurs out there is to come and make Niles Fremont's restaurant row."

"The vision is to connect the past with the future," added Price. "Niles is begging to be brought back to its prime. I see the future of Niles as being very connected to the past, but at the same time being very vibrant. I think its best is yet to come."

Essanay Café
Breakfast: Tue. through Fri., 7 - 11 a.m.; Sat. and Sun., 8 a.m. - noon.
Lunch: Tue. through Fri., 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 12 p.m. - 3 p.m.
37533 Niles Blvd.
(510) 792-0112
www.essanaycafe.com

 
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