Dining and food culture in Chicago

Instant Coffee: Crawling Through the Cafe Experience

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Coffee CrawlBy Stefan Castellanos

I drank my first-ever cup of coffee eighteen months ago during a brief, impactful stint in the warehouse of an artisanal Los Angeles roaster and since then, my relationship with the coffee shop—as a concept and a sacred institution—has fully blossomed. Several times per week, we spend social yet deeply personal time together. And all the while, I have eyes for no one else.

We have a great thing going, but the bar-lover in me was curious: could I combine these passions? Could I treat coffee shop time like a night of determined drinking and still feel fulfilled? Achieving true spatial connection at several locales one after another seemed unlikely, a borderline offensive pursuit. Even so, I had faith that the right environments could produce moments of magic regardless of the circumstances. The coffee crawl was on.

Just as one would before a pub crawl, I mapped out five coffee shops in close proximity (in this case, along Milwaukee stretching from Chicago to Fullerton). I would spend a couple of hours at each over the course of a Saturday, beginning with Big Shoulders Coffee at 9am.

In the best way possible, Big Shoulders (1105 West Chicago, (312)888-3042) is not trendy. The decor is straightforward and tasteful. The coffee is roasted on site, right in the front window, by an impossibly friendly man. Their offerings are detailed in plain English on mounted menus and sold at a reasonable price. At the large triangular table, a man and his young daughter share a piece of cake. Behind them, three friends chat quietly and prepare for the day. There’s a clear view of the Hancock in the distance, and just outside, the busy intersection is starting to wake up. I attempt some pub-style small talk with a girl deep into her studies, grad-school stress on her face. She’s having none of it. Her loss. I feel the heart of the city at arm’s length.

My next stop is Caffe Streets (1750 West Division, (773)278-2739), the “Social Coffee House” serving Chicago-based Metric Coffee. The striking interior is wall-to-wall stained wood, accented with neon longhorn skulls and oversized streetlights. Conversation, laughter and music create a pleasant noise level, and the Division Street people-watching is excellent. The experience is surprisingly bar-like, only with the occasional baby and more pleasant exchanges. I listen to Biggie often, but rarely over a delicious Colombia pour-over.

Next door to the Damen Blue Line station is neighborhood newcomer La Colombe (1552 North Damen) and its space-age automated siphon machine, the “Steampunk.” Described as a cross between a French Press and an AeroPress, the vacuum-based device brews a light and citrusy Ethiopian variety, served in an ornate china mug. No WiFi here, but no one is really here to work so much as enjoy a quality, meticulously crafted beverage. The exposed-brick/mural interior motif, together with its “fancy” drinks and hipster-mecca location add an air of trendiness. But as I look around, the clientele is a more diverse crowd than you’d find at most any nearby bars that night.

It’s 3pm and jittery hands compel me to break for a beer and a sandwich. The coffee crawl, like the pub crawl, is all about balancing your levels.

Just north of Armitage on Western, I come to Ipsento (2035 North Western, (773)904-8177). Small and unassuming, this is definitely the dive bar of the bunch. And like a good dive, the place has character. The baristas are friendly and gregarious and, as an entity, it’s the most in-tune with its community of any place I visit that day. My espresso, paired with a small bite of chocolate, is rich and complex, roasted in-house. I snag a coveted seat at the front window and strike up a conversation with a nice woman next to me. Never, ever underestimate the power of “Can you watch my laptop for a minute?”

I move from Bucktown to Logan Square for my last stop of the day, Gaslight Coffee Roasters (2385 North Milwaukee). Thankfully, I’m meeting an old friend; I don’t know that I’d make it without his help. Disoriented as I am, I thoroughly enjoy my twelve-ounce pour-over, bringing my final tally to approximately thirty-six ounces of coffee and three shots of espresso on the day. Seated at the steel bar as the sun goes down, we discuss Bruce Springsteen and a possible visit to Detroit. The barista voices her approval.

It feels eerily similar to the end of a successful bar crawl: hardly functional yet victorious, in the company of good friends. I steady my hands for a moment and open Twitter on my phone, to a flood of encouraging tweets from these very same coffee shops. I’ll forever romanticize the idea of “earning” my place in a community, but perhaps the coffee community is more inclusive than I thought.


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