Ryan Graff, Medill News Service
One Wednesday night just before closing Abraham Dueñas propped his elbows on one of the tables at his café and started a story about a priest, a politician and a stripper.
They all – as if it could happen any other way – walked into a coffee shop.
But Dueñas’ story didn’t have a punch line. It was just a tale about a typical day at Café Catedral, which he owns with his wife, Alma. “One day,” he went on, “I came in and there were six nuns sitting here. Another time there were like a dozen clowns.”
That’s life on the corner of Christiana and 25th in Little Village since Café Catedral opened there two years ago. Officially, Café Catedral is a coffee shop and restaurant. But Hollywood has used it as a film set, and everyone else in Little Village has used it as an art house, concert hall, actors’ studio, and bachelor party place (strippers, remember).
“On Friday we had Rocio Vega,” Alma Dueñas said, referring to the Mexican songstress who sang at Café Catedral the day after she sang at the National Museum of Mexican Art. “Then the next day we were full of punk rockers.”
Though the Dueñas only opened their coffee shop two years ago they started imagining Café Catedral nearly 20 years ago as students in a town called Morelia in Michoacán, Mexico, a place known for its university, its mountains and its coffee shops.
When the two moved to Chicago in the 80s, they brought the Morelia notion of coffee and coffee shops with them. But they didn’t find it in Chicago.
So in 2000 they bought the old gray, stone building from the German florist who’d built it in 1942. They spent the next five years at coffee clinics in Seattle and Las Vegas, painting the Sistine Chapel-inspired ceilings and collecting statues for the “Wall of Virgins.”
The month they were to open Hollywood called and so the Dueñas gave up their shop for two months for the crew of “Stranger than Fiction” who completely redesigned the shop.
“It was retro or something like that,” Alma Dueñas said. “They asked, ‘Do you want to keep it like this?’” She paused then answered, “Uh, nope.”
Café Catedral, with its statue of St. Anthony at whose feet customers lay slips of paper with inscribed with a wish, finally opened in March 2005.
The menu is filled with Panini sandwiches, crepes and Spanish tapas. The desk facing the long window along 25th street is stacked with computers. On the night Abraham and Alma told their story, a group of middle-aged English speakers pulled three tables together for an after-work meeting. As they cleaned up a group of Spanish-speaking actors trundled down the stairs fumbling scripts and laughing past two film-makers who were huddled around a new camera they’d just pulled from its cardboard box.
“People ask me, ‘Why did you open here? Why not on the North Side?’” said Alma Dueñas.
The Dueñas don’t really have an answer. Other than they live in Little Village and thought the shop would succeed there.
“It’s a European type of coffee shop,” said Abraham Dueñas. “Part of our mission is to give the community something different …. At least once a week I get someone who tells me, ‘I would never guess this place was here.’”
After all, not even Starbucks has dared yet to tread in Little Village.
“We had an idea, but I didn’t know how hard it was to be in the business,” Alma Dueñas said. “I’m here almost 24 hours. When you’re the owner you can also be the dishwasher, waiter, cook, whatever. We’re not just chilling.”
So what’s happening at Café Catedral this weekend? Well, there was an advocacy meeting on Thursday, there’s a rock show tonight, and a private bachelor party on Saturday. You know – the usual.