One by one, owners, employees and customers gathered Sunday in a coffee shop kitty-corner from three downtown Evanston businesses that had just been destroyed in a fire.
All morning, they hugged and they cried. They watched gray smoke billow from the brick building, now roofless and partially without walls. They recounted stories of how the two restaurants and nail salon began.
“I have so many people I have to call,” said Jennifer Vatamaniuc, owner of TechniColour Nail & Day Spa. “We were going to be busy this morning.”
It took firefighters nearly five hours to put out the early morning fire that began at the Pine Yard Restaurant, possibly in the kitchen, of an undetermined cause. The blaze, reported at 2:24 a.m., quickly spread to the nail salon and the Taco Diablo restaurant, both in the same building in the 1000 block of Davis Street.
A firefighter was taken to Evanston Hospital with an ankle injury and was later released, said city spokeswoman Martha Logan.
The fire occurred in an area that has seen plenty of shocking news this year. Down the street, two brothers were found slain in their family's tobacco shop July 30. And two weeks ago, a bank was robbed nearby and the suspected robber was shot dead when he refused to drop a gun. That suspect was later linked to the tobacco shop killings.
The Pine Yard Restaurant, a Chinese eatery, has been a staple in the North Shore suburb for 40 years.
Originally located at 924 Church St., the restaurant belonged to Eric and Stella Hsieh, who wanted to bring Mandarin cuisine to the Midwest from their native China, said Stella Hseih. In 1999, the small restaurant relocated to Davis Street and later changed hands a few times, she added.
The current owner, Simon Wen, said he bought the Pine Yard Restaurant seven months ago. He recalled closing the restaurant Saturday night, when business was unusually slow for the holiday season, and then being awakened Sunday morning by his wife with the news.
Though the restaurant's windows were shattered, Christmas lights still hung on the frames. Wen is determined that his restaurant will come back.
“I'll build up, I'll build up, I'll build up,” the 42-year-old repeated at the coffee shop.
A few feet away, Gabrielle Aguilar rushed through the front door and hugged Vatamaniuc. Aguilar, a longtime customer, cried as she talked about how the salon staff was like a second family. The salon opened in 2004 under Vatamaniuc's cousin.
“That is our place,” Aguilar said. “It's just a beautiful energy in there.”
Around noon, the coffee shop cleared out. Several employees of Taco Diablo and its owner, Dan Kelch, stood outside the year-and-a-half-old restaurant and pointed to where the bar once stood.
Then a firefighter handed them two colorful paintings that survived but contained shards of glass and debris. The employees carefully removed the fragments and helped Kelch put the paintings in the back of his car.
Tribune reporter Rosemary Regina Sobol contributed.