A Favorite Dining Destination Among Students

Cafecito quickly became a favorite dining destination among students and faculty when it opened last summer in the heart of Columbia’s South Loop campus. But most who have feasted on the savory Cubano and chimichurri sandwiches are probably unaware that the friendly owner behind the counter is an alumnus. Philip Ghantous, originally from Peoria, Illinois, fell in love with corner cafeterias during a visit to Miami. “In Miami, it’s all Cuban eateries, cafés, not Starbucks or Seattle’s Best,” he says. “I wanted to bring the flavor of Cuba to this city.”

Ghantous came to Chicago in 1994 to pursue an acting career. After playing a wide range of roles on stage, Ghantous enrolled in Columbia’s theater program, where he was cast in Chekhov’s Ivanov by department chair Sheldon Patinkin. He earned a B.A. in theater in 2000. “Columbia made me more serious,” he says. “If students are smart, they will make friends with their teachers. They can help get your foot in the door.”

A life in the theater is notoriously unpredictable, though, and Ghantous—in love and newly married—was looking for more stability. He took various day jobs and was admittedly “successful, but also miserable.” While working in admissions at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, Ghantous discovered a second passion. “I always loved food, always loved cooking,” says the gregarious restaurateur. Determined to open his own restaurant, he drove all around the city scouting locations, night after night, kids protesting in the backseat, until he finally found a vacancy on the ground floor of the historic Hostelling International Chicago building at the corner of Congress and Wabash.

Cafecito opened its doors in July 2008 to rave reviews. The bright eatery boasts a menu of Cuban coffee drinks, including its namesake (an espresso poured over carmelized sugar) and made-to-order pressed sandwiches. The popular Cubano is a mouthwatering combination of roasted pork marinated in mojo (the restaurant’s secret sauce), ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard, all on Gonnella French bread. Ghantous’s goal is to foster an environment in which people stop, talk with each other, and enjoy the lively Latin music. “When people come in and start moving, that’s the biggest compliment I can get,” he says with a grin.

Future plans include an interdisciplinary arts open mic. “I want to support the arts,” says Ghantous, “perhaps with a studio, a theater.” But despite his success with his new passion, he hasn’t forsaken his love of acting, saying he definitely plans to get back into it. “This is my last chance to be involved in theater. I refuse to fail.”

Original publication: 
The Second Course