Sit down, relax and have a cup of coffee.
The coffeehouse has become a center in the contemporary city, serving as a meeting place, a “home office” and a study hall for the community. And the best serve as counterpoint to the prevailing corporate culture: shaggy, friendly and, rather than studies in the science of turning tables as quickly as possible, welcoming enclaves where lingering is virtually encouraged. Chicago has a wealth of great coffeehouses, and with due respect to the chains, it’s the independent, locally owned and operated institutions that give the city its caffeinated flavor. Treasure them and support them, though, for many are fragile endeavors. And as we learned this year when Filter gave way at one of the liveliest spots in Wicker Park, it’s not necessarily Starbucks that threatens their existence. Apparently, it’s the inexplicable need for a bank branch on every corner.
We’ve put together this selective indie coffeehouse guide as a service to those of us who value their existence, and as a service to the spirit they inculcate.
5317 North Clark, (773)989-5674
Known for its sandwiches as much as its freshly brewed coffee, Clark Street’s Kopi Café is the stop for travelers. Crammed with travel guides—plus artwork, clocks and other knickknacks—from around the world, Kopi allows you to globe-trot while sipping your joe. This will be especially useful during the frigid months to come.
Bridgeport Coffee House
3101 South Morgan, (773)247-9950
This neighborhood staple roasts and blends its own coffee daily, and makes a point of knowing each and every customer by name. Pastries, sandwiches, ice cream, shakes and loose-leaf teas are served to Bridgeport Bohemians and older locals alike. No vegan items on the menu, but otherwise more than happy to make it your way. Free Wi-Fi keeps the conversation to a quiet hum and makes for a warm and cozy workspot—the staff also keeps it interesting with diverse but noninvasive musical selections. The best place to go for coffee in Bridgeport.
Bronzeville Coffee and Tea
528 East 43rd, (773)536-0494
Bronzeville Coffee and Tea is as refreshing as, well, a cup of good coffee. Indeed, the dark brown awning and creamy-colored interior practically smell of the stuff. Designed by owners Trez V. Pugh III and Richard Chalmers to be as comforting as your own home, the shop boasts of free Wi-Fi and forty outlets—one for every table—not to mention a more spacious and inviting restroom than even most houses care to afford. Conversation is always vibrant—a “Topic of the Day” sometimes gets written up on the chalkboards—and other notables include a bookshelf of free reading, occasional comedy bouts in the dining area out back, and the Caramel Royale, the shop’s signature drink.
Café De Luca
1721 North Damen, (773)342-6000
While De Luca may seem a bit more restaurant than coffee shop (they have servers and a full menu), and their neat, rustic Italian décor may be fancier than traditional coffee shops, De Luca’s extensive coffee-related menu, laid-back service and no table turn pressure make this a great place to for both work and play. You’ll see a mix of business-suited lunches, solo laptoppers (taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi) and Bucktown moms with fancy strollers. The full menu, which provides a mix of salads, paninis and pizza, just means you can hang here that much longer. They have a liquor license too, just in case you need to spice up that coffee with a little Bailey’s.
2020 North Leavitt, (773)489-0569
Tucked away on a corner in a quiet neighborhood, Crenshaw’s Café is tiny, but cozy. Even their outdoor seating, under an over-arching tree, feels secluded. Owner Mark Palmer was so passionate about creating a stellar café in the neighborhood that he purchased the coffee shop that occupied the space and revamped it, because “it wasn’t very good.” Crenshaw’s serves Julius Meinl espresso, which Darren Miller, a local customer, says is “is the best I’ve ever tasted.”
Italian Coffee Bar
1549 Sherman, Evanston, (847)328-7164
This small Venice-inspired coffeehouse is much more laid-back compared to their regional brethren. Despite that, there’s a great selection of coffee drinks here, and also plenty of gelato and freshly-made cookies for the dessert-minded. For those with more of an appetite, paninis are also available. Something of a getaway from the noisier coffeeshops in the Evanston area, Italian Coffee Bar has plenty to offer if you are looking for a quieter scene.
1621 Chicago, Evanston, (847)491-1621
The quintessential late-night coffeehouse is a favorite for many students and older locals alike. Whether you’re there to socialize or study, Kafein’s atmosphere somehow allows for both, and with a laundry list of delectable treats like “big ass cookies,” milkshakes and more, there’s plenty to keep you going. If that isn’t enough, Kafein also has a very wide coffee and tea selection, with their Aztec Mocha’s being among their most popular. Free Wi-Fi is also available. While occasionally noisy, Kafein’s eclectic ambiance is well worth the price of admission.
1723 Sherman, Evanston, (847)332-2312
Serving the greater Northwestern community since 1991, Unicorn Café is a great place for people to study. Boasting eccentric artwork and baked goods that are made daily in the shop itself, people flock here for not only the java but also for the food. According to Brandon, one of the very friendly baristas, their soups in particular are popular as “one of the former employees still makes the soups from scratch.” With a wide variety of foods and coffee, Unicorn Café is well worth checking out.
1001 North California, (773)342- 4743
The friendly baristas have to put their heads together to remember how long this large, sunlit shop has been open on the corner of Augusta and California (three years), but they can tell you immediately their coffee (they brew Intelligensia and they brew it strong) is some of the best around. One sip confirms that in addition to the serious slice of wit served up in its name, Humboldt Pie offers a decidedly un-humble cup of joe.
2521 West Chicago, (773)384-7827
Having just opened in late September, Star Lounge has already gained a steady flow of customers. The staff is friendly and extremely knowledgeable about the variety of drinks offered; they know what they’re doing and it’s obvious they care about it too. Inside, the counter is an actual bar—in places where whiskey was once stored, there is now syrup bottles and mugs. It’ll be a lot less depressing when you come in, sit at the bar by yourself and stare into your cup at a perfectly pulled espresso shot, rather than a beer—and they won’t cut you off either.
Cobb Coffee Shop
5811 South Ellis, bottom floor
Hosted out of the same spot since the 1960s, the Cobb Coffee Shop may sit in the basement of an academic building on the University of Chicago, but don’t let that frighten you off. With a typical collegiate atmosphere—complete with retro cultural allusions, spinning vinyl and student service—you can often find plenty of students and faculty hard at work or simply lounging around between classes. There’s food to be found from many a local restaurant, as well as, of course, the house blend of coffee (no specialty drinks here, sorry), but like all University of Chicago coffee shops it’s cash only. And while there may be a dearth of windows, the green walls and general bustle help keep things lively and not nearly as depressing as words make it seem.
Divinity School Coffee Shop
1025 East 58th, Swift Hall Basement, (773)702-4806
“Where God drinks coffee.” You wouldn’t imagine that any god would drink coffee in a basement hole-in-the-wall, but pay seventy-five cents for Fair Trade-certified organic joe, and you will understand. Located on the University of Chicago campus, the Div School Coffee Shop comes decked in the obligatory kitsch that the young crowd has come to expect from “intellectual” commodity establishments: old photos of rock stars with speech bubbles encapsulating ironic slogans, mismatched furniture and so on. The crowd may feel too collegiate, but with hot meals from Hyde Park restaurants available for lunch and the cheapest coffee on campus, you’ll understand why the crowd is so big.
Regenstein Library, A Level, 1100 East 57th, (773)702-7645
Let’s be frank: Ex Libris isn’t the most attractive coffeeshop in Chicago. It’s not even the sightliest shop on the University of Chicago campus. All it’s got going for it, really, is its convenient spot in the Regenstein Library. Like most college hangouts, the service turns toward the disengaged if you’re not in on the scene, and to add insult to injury you can’t buy anything unless you have cash. But hey, if a cafeteria-style rectangle with a low ceiling and no windows in the basement of a library is your kind of thing, then you’ve come to the right place.
5706 South University, 2nd floor
Located in the Reynolds Club of the University of Chicago campus, this venerable institution has seen its fair share of drama—notably two years ago, when it opted to change its name from the hallowed “Uncle Joe’s” moniker to its current incarnation. But regardless of title, the joint continues to serve up familiar mainstays to the university and community crowd; namely, a few pool tables, food from local restaurants and a plethora of comfortable couches to boot. It’s a good place to catch up on reading or catch some Z’s between classes, and while it is predominantly a shop for students (and run by students), anyone carrying cold hard cash—no checks or cards, thanks—is welcome to stop by for a cup of delicious Metropolis coffee.
1520 E. 57th, (773)955-2556
Brothers Paul and Marc Pribaz opened Istria underneath the humming tracks of the South Shore Metra to bring the flavors of the Eastern European Mediterranean to Hyde Park. The Pribaz empire is slowly growing; a new branch is slated to open soon in the Hyde Park Art Center. Besides addictive panini sandwiches and expertly prepared coffee, Istria offers an Adriatic treat no one else in the neighborhood can: fresh gelato, made in-house everyday.
Third World Café
1301 East 53rd, (773)288-3882
Between the University of Chicago campus and the periphery of Hyde Park, there is a sharp contrast between the obligatory collegiate coffee lounges and the more refined options near Hyde Park Boulevard. Third World Café provides a happy medium, and despite the suspicious name, it provides great-tasting coffee, a breakfast menu and clean digs. Both students and neighborhood residents stop in for the many espresso drinks on tap. In addition to the delicious afternoon snacks like red pepper hummus with pita, the store has recently started selling fruit smoothies. The walls are decorated with rotating art-for-sale from local artists, making Third World Café the aesthetic and culinary heart of Hyde Park’s coffee-shop scene.
Emerald City Coffee
3938 North Sheridan, (773)525-7847
This shop wins for the best location award—if there were one of those. Located just under the Sheridan el tracks, Emerald City is pretty fantastic to grab your caffeine fix on the way to work, if you live by there. They even have a door that connects the actual el station to the shop. If you want to feel “urban” and have the train violently rattling above your head every few minutes, it’s also a good place to sit and read a book.
3053 North Sheffield, (773)248-0841
The Fixx, with its exposed brick walls and indie-rock soundtrack, seems like it would be more at home in a neighborhood like Wicker Park, but it’s a welcome anomaly in an area noted mostly for bars. In addition to a wide range of espresso drinks and food, the coffeehouse aims to be more of a neighborhood hangout, occasionally hosting readings and offering a variety of board games for visitors to enjoy. It’s also among the latest coffeehouses standing in the area on most evenings, staying open until 11pm.
3601 North Southport, (773)868-1857
Julius Meinl contents the most ravenous Viennese café fetish. Rightly so, as this coffee house has existed in Vienna since 1862 and served as a sanctuary for writers and intellectuals through the roughest wars and the greediest multinational chains. Julius Meinl provides all the traditional elements: service on a silver platter, a small glass of water to dilute your caffeinated blood, a complimentary chocolate to encourage lingering, live classical music to promote inspiration and, of course, their own brand of shockingly good espresso and coffee. Viennese breakfasts and desserts complement the highly stylized atmosphere in all its indulgent glory.
3800 North Clark, (773)929-3680
More of a café than a coffee shop—Uncommon Ground is an option with a multiplicity of choices. Grab a latte, a beer or glass of wine, or stay for an entire meal. The spot hosts regular acoustic shows and open mics, including the annual Jeff Buckley tribute coming up on November 16th and 17th, sparked off of a legendary performance at Uncommon Ground by the man himself in February of ’94. The event is sold out, as it does in minutes every year, but you can call and put your name on a list and pray that dozens of people forget to show up.
738 West Fullerton, (773)883-5282
Brick walls, wood bookshelves and comfortably worn-in couches make this Lincoln Park spot the type of place where a coffee lover can go through a dozen cups without even noticing. The two-level shop has a cozy living room vibe, with dozens of old books and plenty of nooks and crannies to curl up in with a good read—whether it’s theirs or your own. Check out the literary-named sandwiches (“The Great Gatsby” and “The Sun Also Rises” are faves), which are a perfect fit in this DePaul neighborhood.
612 West Wrightwood, (773)755-6053
It might be easy to miss this little joint if their sign didn’t hang higher than that of the cleaners next door. Tucked around the corner on Wrightwood near Clark in Lincoln Park (obviously) this little Italian style coffeehouse is beaming with charm. The black-and-white checkered floor inside compliments the blue booth seats and vintage movie posters that hang on the walls. The coffee is good—it’s Intelligentsia, they have paninis and some creative desserts as well, but it’s enough of an excuse to go just to sit at the window counter and feel sophisticated while listening to old classic show tunes.
Savor the Flavor
2545 North Sheffield, (773)883-5287
Savor the Flavor has, for the most part, everything the average or even well-seasoned coffeehouse veteran could ask for: lots of comfortable seating, plenty of natural light, evening hours, food running the gambit from sandwiches to ice cream, free wireless Internet, lots of outlets for laptop users, workers who are easily the friendliest in the city and, of course, great coffee. The shop is a haven for students searching for something quiet but more pleasant than the library as well as locals looking for a dog-friendly spot to read the newspaper.
2524 West Fullerton, (773)235-8103
Though the sheer volume of decorative cherubs found here may be alarming, there’s a sincerity in the decor that is unmistakable. While the folks here know how to make a great latte, their all-natural fruit smoothies and ice-cream creations might make you forget about your caffeine fix for a little while. Cherub’s soft and sweet homemade churros are a find in and of themselves, especially if you’ve ever been discouraged having gnawed on one of those cinnamon crusted atrocities they sell at Wrigley Field, criminally, under the same name.
Mojoes Hot House
2849 West Belmont, (773)596- JOES
Cabinets and counters in post-war suburban avocado and covered in bumper stickers give Mojoes the feeling that you’re visiting a friend—you know, the friend that managed to stay in a quirky old house while going to college and at whose place everyone always hung out. The coffee shop serves a similar purpose in the neighborhood, with meetings and concerts popping up organically from the eclectic customers. New owner Mel Lloyd, who took over in October, plans to enhance that feeling by using the space that formerly housed the Chicago Underground Library as a used book store/concert setting/movie theater/meeting room.
No Friction Café
2023 North California, (773)278-7170
Equal parts New York deli and local coffee shop, No Friction serves up a full menu of cold-cut sandwiches, salads, wraps and breakfast items along with Intelligentsia coffee and Bleeding Heart Bakery pastries. The little corner café fills a definite void in the Logan Square café scene, yet somehow the concept comes off a bit confused. Despite the comfy armchairs and the suggestive name, No Friction isn’t the kind of place that inspires one to set up camp for an afternoon of quiet reflection; the whiteboard of Hilda’s rather stern house rules are displayed more prominently than the menu, and the staff’s penchant for dance tunes and sassy girl pop make it a better place for a quick sandwich or a cookie to go.
1 East Wacker, (312)644-2233
If you’re the type who takes the art of coffee far more seriously than your acquaintances, owner Kenny Sadi opened Caffe Café with you in mind. The relatively new restaurant has a modern design but also utter respect for the 1,200-year history of making coffee. “It’s not just about cream and sugar,” Sadi says. “You have to know the history, how to roast, the shipping, the distribution, storage, how to store in the right temperature.” Putting that much effort into their signature house lattes or caramel macchiato makes Sadi a proud barista, and perhaps Chicago’s most determined java artist.
46 South Clark, (312)422-0142
While the financial district seems like the absolute last place you’d expect to find anything remotely independent, owner Joe Yim has found a distinctive combination that sells: coffee and sushi. Since 1999, Capra’s Korean-style café has ostensibly merged nationalities into one coffeehouse while selling grounds to take home—with blends from Italy, Columbia, Indonesia, Ethiopia and Vietnam. And they also sell those Japanese candies, like pocky sticks and hi-chew taffy, for those who don’t quite feel like a kid in a candy store when they have thirty different kinds of coffee to choose from.
Lower West Side
1066 West Taylor, (312)226-7669
A demitasse, for those who don’t know, is a small, delicate cup in which coffee is served. You can have that here or you can act like the American that you are and order a double Mocha Latte with extra whipped cream to go. Catering mainly to students from nearby UIC, this spacious Taylor Street coffeehouse also offers a wide array of affordable breakfast and lunch options. Owner Jim Spina has made the place ooze with charm, from the little pink flowers at each table to the whipped cream cheese in their stuffed French toast. Be sure to stop by for their art gallery open houses when the artists come to change their work to a different theme.
1651 North Wells, (312)951- 7638
Most of us have a brusque female relative (maybe an aunt or grandmother) who loves us, but just seems to have trouble showing it. Anyone with a special place in their heart for this particular kind of kin will feel right at home inside Savories. No-nonsense offerings are served up in styrofoam cups amidst signs warning that your mother doesn’t work here, so you’d better pick up after yourself. The owner has been in this Old Town spot for nine years.
Near South Side
1801 South Indiana, (312)842-4210
Don’t let the silhouette of the stately young couple on the company logo fool you—Café Society is about as far from snobby as you can get. A family-friendly joint located in the always-bustling South Loop, it boasts an atmosphere that’s classy yet embracing, hospitable and warm. Photographs of the city by Dave Jordano line the walls, along with pictures of manager Jorge Armando with a customer by the name of Richard Daley. But you don’t have to be mayor to get recognized here; the entranceway is surrounded by photos of happy patron families. And considering the Colombian house coffee, the fan-favorite omelets, and free Wi-Fi service—not to mention a policy against serving pre-made or canned foods—it’s no wonder that the “Prairie District Neighborhood Bistro” keeps its customers coming back for more.
Efebos Internet Café
1640 South Blue Island, (312)633-9212
Efebos Café boasts a staff as warm and sunny as its ample square footage, which they’ve somehow managed to furnish into the coziest, cushiest café in the city since Filter. Standard café fare is more fresh and flavorful than you can find anywhere else, with items like strawberry and mango licuados, grilled, marinated veggie sandwiches and a very beautiful and generous fruit salad. The exposed brick walls feature an ever-changing array of art that is more provocative and persuasive than most—more of a gallery sensibility, without being pretentious or uninviting. International Internet radio plays over the speakers, situated above eight desktop computers for customers lacking laptops.
Kristoffers Café & Bakery
1733 South Halsted, (312)829-4150
Situated smack dab in the prime real estate of Pilsen’s arty 18th and Halsted, this café is an indie haven offering such celebrated and unique items like its Très Leches Cake and Mayan Tamales. While the food is fantastic, and the Intelligentsia coffee keeps customers coming in, the ambiance leaves something to be desired—dim lighting, top 40 radio and poorly installed art are somewhat off-putting and thus takeout is the trend. So bring some headphones and your laptop because free Wi-Fi and a Chocoflan can more than make up for the lackluster surroundings.
Beans & Bagels
1812 West Montrose, (773)769-2000
MIT Crack House Leads to Heroic Mass Murder. A jumble of word magnets affixed to the cash register have been haphazardly arranged into an array of phrases—but this one is by far the best. A cozy neighborhood shop that delivers what it promises, Bagels and Beans is snuggled in next to the Montrose Brown Line stop making it a favorite of morning commuters.
4771 North Lincoln, (773)561-5513
With several additional locations and being their own roaster, Café Descartes pretty much have their grounds covered (har har har). The Lincoln Square location (there’s also a Michigan Avenue stop) is in a prime spot for those getting off the Western Brown Line stop or the Lawrence bus. The interior is comforting, with long dark curtains over several large windows that brighten the place. Their specialty: The Oatmeal Latte, a strange breakfast mixture of oatmeal, espresso, fresh fruit and a surplus of other ingredients that you eat/drink/spill on yourself.
4655 North Lincoln, (773)878-2233
Though a bit on the pricey side, Cafeneo is pretty delicious if you want to spend an extra buck. They have crepes and quiche as well as other breakfast goodies, and the “in house” cups are appealing. There’s something about drinking out of a real mug that makes coffee so much better. The Wi-Fi is free as long as you make a four-dollar purchase, and the staff is pretty friendly—they bring you a glass of water while you wait for your drink at a table, even if you only bought a small coffee.
4613 North Lincoln, (773)271-4482
Intimacy can be great but the Grind takes it to a new level. Elbows bump tables, and you are almost smothered by freelancers plowing away at their laptops. Older women discuss the minutia of their sex lives, paying special attention to their newfound ability to orgasm with that Mac store clerk and if you are absent headphones you will be privy to every deep-throated detail. But as long as you love your fellow mankind, and don’t use cafes as an escape into the self, the Grind really does serve up a damn good cup of coffee. The coffee is strong and the cappuccinos are creamy, pastries are homemade and the servers seemed to be unusually good-looking.
The Perfect Cup
4700 North Damen, (773)989-4177
The name of the shop might be a bit of an overstatement, but there isn’t anything below average here. They have a number of bakery items, in addition to the regular coffee menu and also several flavors of gelato. The atmosphere is inviting, though a bit Ikea-centric. The back has a cute stage-like platform with couches and coffee tables, and on the bookshelves are vines growing out of large latte mugs. How clever.
3827 North Lincoln, (773)477-9840
What’s with the name? A reference to Captain Ahab’s second mate Stubb (first mate: Starbuck) in Moby Dick, but this neighborhood joint is all but second-rate. High ceilings and large windows make for a bright and inviting space in which to sip and sup Fratelli’s coffee and European-style paninis made-to-order, as well as pastries from Bennison’s in Evanston and banana bread from Labriola Bakery. The walls are always well-curated, as is the music—you can relax or converse to an eclectic and playful soundtrack that includes anything from Panda Bear to The Beatles.
4947 North Damen, (773)506-0708
This Ravenswood spot is inviting for both those who want to lounge around, and those who want to get a plethora of work done as well. The original tin ceilings and antique jukebox give the café a nostalgic and warm feel, and there are couches and comfy chairs around a fireplace. Back by the counter, you can sit at a table under a skylight and make use of the free Wi-Fi. Their menu isn’t extremely extensive, but they do offer a number of paninis, one of which is a banana-nutella treat, topped with a bit of whipped cream.
517 North Halsted, (312)432-0663
Here’s a little café that never seems to sleep, an everything-to-everybody hybrid of espresso, alcohol and authentic Grecian crepes. Owner George Couchell owned an Iguana Café in Greece and decided about six years ago that Chicago would be well-served to have a European-style café of its own. If anyone sitting at the espresso bar, sipping on their freddo, suddenly gets the uncontrollable urge for a glass of wine, they only need to make the grueling three-step trek to the other bar that’s literally inches away, where they can lounge around till 2am.
1223 West Grand, (312)563-1123
Serving great bean in an actual house, Sip is one of the best spots on the West Side to linger for hours over your book, a magazine from their hallway rack (be you in the mood for Lumpen or Maxim) or the free Wi-Fi on your laptop. In addition to conventional espresso drinks, the menu includes seasonal lattes and frozen coffee drinks in flavors like Hook-Up and Musclehead. Nearly all the teas are organic, cheap—just $2 a pot for black green or white—and served by amiable baristas who take care that the water is at just the right temperature. Visit before the real cold sets in to enjoy the birdhouses and wild grasses on the charming back patio. This is a coffeehouse that is so beloved by its outlying neighborhood that when a Starbucks opened nearby, their business increased. It’s the personalization and homely feel that matters to Sip: owner Nancy Angelopoulos’ mom makes the pastries and the staff is devoted to making “Latte Art,” which involves making designs—like Christmas trees or butterflies—with the foam. Their quaint outdoor courtyard allows the opportunity to relax comfortably and completely forget you’re in the city. Try the Snowbird, a tasty vanilla/coconut latte, that is, if you can muster up the strength to suck up the art on the top of your mug.
5256 North Broadway, (773)784-1305
This nicely designed coffee shop on North Broadway is a definite getaway for those looking to study. In addition to numerous coffees, Coffee Chicago also has a variety of teas and also smoothies. In the treats department, pastries are offered as well as Homer’s ice cream. Incredibly popular, you might be pressed for a seat, but with so much to offer, it is well worth it.
6981 North Sheridan, (773)973-2233
Located in the Rogers Park neighborhood, Café Ennui has something for everyone, as their diverse clientele will suggest. Offering a wide variety of teas in addition to the standard coffee fare, the shop also has a wide selection of food to choose from. Paninis, salads and more can be found here. Their most popular items? “Probably our chili and greek salad are two of our most popular items” says Ted, one of the friendly folks who work at Café Ennui. If all that isn’t enough, Café Ennui also offers free Wi-Fi and outdoor seating to boot.
Metropolis Coffee Company
1039 West Granville, (773)764-0400
Metropolis is a community hub in Edgewater. With three spacious rooms for lounging, Metropolis on a Sunday morning can feel like an alternative community center, a place to worship the almighty cup of caffeine. Organic and fair-trade beans and in-house roasting have won Metropolis awards across the board, from roaster of the year to best latté outside of Seattle. Although it’s been around for just four years, it’s difficult to recall a time before Metropolis happened upon the block.
728 South Dearborn, (312)427-2610
While its the extensive Middle Eastern menu that puts the “Mediterranean” in its title, the coffee and tea selections are given just as much attention in this cozy South Loop café. In the morning, their signature Thai iced coffee competes with at least a dozen tempting varieties of tea, ranging from the vastly popular (melon white green) to the especially selective (the smoky Russian caravan tea, which bears some resemblance to chewing tobacco) to the medically groundbreaking (the employees swear their “flu fighter” tea actually works). And in the evening, it’s BYOB for a subtle and romantic date spot.
Barista Coffee House Inc.
852 North Damen, (773)489-2010
“I want people to feel like they’re walking into my home,” says April Lopez about her coffee shop. Indeed, everyone inside Barista seems to know each other, and Lopez, who works every day, doesn’t seem like she’s working, rather, she’s having fun. Having quit her fourteen-year job at Marriott two years ago because she “felt like a drone” and was “tired of corporate America,” Lopez opened a coffee shop in the neighborhood, loving how coffee was used as a socialization tool. Barista offers a space for local artists to showcase their art, board-game night on Sundays, random movie nights, drinks like the Caramel Apple Cider (apple pie in liquid form) and cheery conversation.
939 North Western, (773)342-2909
To walk into Café Ballou is to step into a café in Budapest or Vienna. Café Ballou has a distinct Eastern European charm with its peach and terracotta interior, antique wooden furniture, thin curtains, ceiling fans, table lamps and faded photographs. The staff is friendly, the pastries and food are yummy, and the crowd is varied and polite. Owner Christine Kordiuk is incredibly successful in recreating the atmosphere she emigrated from.
912 North Western, (773)772-4281
Café Zori’s owner, Helena Galina, says this about her coffee shop: “I want it to be like a living room for the Ukrainian people.” This explains the black leather sofas, the monstrous and bulky TV, the arcade-style slot machine, the deli counter showcasing fake fruits, the drapes and the Russian newspapers. The pastries, coffee and food are standard café fair, but Galina says she is willing to make any kind of food for her customers. For instance, she’ll make Ukrainian pork chops if you ask her.
Lovely: A Bake Shop
1130 North Milwaukee, (773)572-4766
Technically it’s not a coffee shop, but with freshly baked apple mini-pies, warm oatmeal raisin cookies and the scent of another lovely creation in the oven, why would you have your cup of joe anywhere else? The ladies behind Lovely have outfitted their cozy space with quaintly mismatched antique tables and chairs, a large sofa and a small bar-ish area, where you can easily chat with the friendly baristas about the chilled out music playing in the background, or what new delectable treats you can expect to hit the displays during your visit.
1505 West Chicago, (312)455-9924
Mercury Café is a huge loft of a coffee shop, filled with artwork and furniture that look as if they’d been grabbed off the street or from Craigslist’s “free” section. Mercury Café is happy being miscellaneous in every way. Says customer Jeremiah Miller, “one time I came in here, and there was a reading group, a scrabble tournament in the back and some tango lessons, all at the same time, and thirty other people just sitting around. It’s fascinating. Oh, and their sandwiches are legitimate Italian sandwiches.” When asked about these sandwiches, employee Jennifer Hathy says, “We don’t mess around.”
Ritz Tango Café
933 North Ashland, (773)235-2233
The woman behind the counter is busy–so make it quick. Yes it’s a coffeehouse though yes they do indeed serve food. Yes they have a specialty drink for which they’re known. Some gentle prompting even reveals its name—Tango Latte—and, eventually, its description—a latte with chocolate and raspberry. Any further information is going to have to come via inference—‘cause she’s done talking. The name Ritz Tango in conjunction with the fact that all tables have been pushed aside to reveal a wide expanse of floor may lead you to suspect that dancing (perhaps tango?) is involved. It is. Lessons are conducted four nights a week. It says so on a sign by the door.
1357 West Chicago, (312)492- 8600
Inspired by the pool across the street, Swim’s interior is blue, green, aquamarine and the furniture and counters take on an undulating shape. Co-owner Ken Walczak built all the furniture himself, which, by their design, force people to share space, hopefully fostering social interaction. “We knew the atmosphere we wanted” says Walczak. Swim serves Just Coffee, a hundred-percent fair-trade roaster in Madison, and of their light meals, “we try to get as much organic as possible.” The first Friday of the month sees Swim unveiling its new showcased artist, next month being three participants from the Chicago Artists Coalition.
4715 North Sheridan, (773)275-0626
Part of Inspiration Corporation, an organization focused on ending homelessness for individuals through employment training and education about self-sufficiency—this is a shop with a purpose. The employees are enrolled in a thirteen-week training program that focuses on building culinary, teamwork and job-readiness skills. The café offers a full breakfast, lunch and dinner menu, and the food is always delicious and fresh. If you just want a cup of coffee, that’s fine too, they also have their own Intelligentsia blend you can purchase to help support the organization and make at home.
4181 North Clarendon, (773)755-1955
Situated in a discreet corner of Uptown, Dollop may have found the perfect place to forge a coffee shop. The building used to serve as a pharmacy, and maintains a kind of early-industrial vibe that is tastefully softened by the array of antiques, couches and tastefully curated artwork. Everything about this place is cozy, from the couches and lighting to the workers themselves. How can a barista be cozy you ask? Well, they offer kind, sympathetic explanations for black-coffee-chugging freelance writers that think Earl Grey steeped in steamed milk is an exotic concept. In addition to serving exclusively Metropolis coffee, Dollop also sells baked goods from the earthy Bleeding Heart Bakery, and a variety of homemade pies from the clinically enthusiastic Hoosier Mama Pie Company.
939 West Madison, (312)850-2426
With Scrabble in the corner, a workable fireplace (about to be fired up for the winter), and a meager maximum capacity of twenty-six people, Café Ciao has the ambiance of a living room. But on the occasional special evening, owner Julie Chung will clear out the tables and hold tango lessons or sing karaoke. And that’s in addition to the coffee, which she describes as “nice and approachable, not bitter” and bandies the term “anti-Starbucks,” which probably resonates with those living in a neighborhood where many Starbucks have sprung up.
Jupiter Coffee Outpost
1139 West Fulton Market, (312)238-9473
The Jupiter Coffee Outpost is exactly that—a remote stronghold flung far from the beaten commercial path. Tucked away in a corridor primarily populated by meat packers and chic interior design firms, this Fulton Market spot occupies the first floor of an old, creaky warehouse and is about as far away from corporate coffee as you can get. In addition to the basics (coffee, espresso, tea), Jupiter offers a rotating selection of hot and cold sandwiches created by Liz, the senior barista. Don’t see anything you like? Just let her know—she’s happy to accommodate requests. Try getting that kind of service within the fortified walls of convention.
Morgan Street Café
111 South Morgan, (312)850-0292
If you couldn’t tell from the coffee that the Ahn brothers love variety, take a gander at what’s lining the wall—bottle after empty bottle of Torani syrup, at least ten-feet worth of crème de menthe, vanilla and caramel. For the past three years, Jimmy and Tom Ahn have offered the UIC area their Mediterranean Lattes (and a solid lineup of grilled sandwiches) to neighbors, students, even “The Office”’s Jenna Fischer and Hollywood superstar Michael Keaton. If it’s good enough for Batman, it’s probably good enough for you.
Alliance Bakery Café
1736 West Division, (773)278-0366
The Alliance changed hands about a year ago and the baked goods and atmosphere haven’t suffered a bit. It’s still got the best red velvet cupcake and people-watching sidewalk patio in town. Tempting racks of cookies, cupcakes, Danishes and bars fill the bakery cases with splendor befitting the vintage sign above the awning and the artisanal cakes in the window. There’s always plenty of tables in the adjacent storefront, but if you’ve come to chat with a friend, try to snag the armchairs in the little room in back; the sparse front room, full of small tables and free Wi-Fi, feels a bit like the U of C library.
1725 West Division, (773)489-4494
Blend is a happening place. Co-owner Antonio Martinez wanted to create a space where people could be comfortable, from the “Internet guy” to the moms and kids. Blend occasionally has local artists showcase their art, poetry readings and live music. With its wrap-around floor to ceiling windows, red booths, bar stools, couches, exposed brick, flat-screen TVs, kiddie corner, fake fireplace and library, Blend’s seemingly random décor works. Blend also offers a wide variety of snacks, Martinez realizing that “plain sandwiches weren’t going to cut it in this neighborhood,” so he hired a chef to create a different menu and a separate brunch menu for weekends.
1760 West North, (773)252-8228
The business at this Wicker Park shop has picked up considerably since the closing of Filter, and it’s become nearly impossible to grab a table here during lunchtime. But if you can’t hang around to discover that it’s worth the wait, stop by during the off-hours, pull up a seat in a comfy booth and compliment your cup of coffee with one of their many freshly-made sandwich creations (all named after famous artists). This place is a great spot for those who don’t dig the java, too. They offer shakes, smoothies and a wide variety of teas from Republic of Tea.
Milk & Honey Bake Shop
1543 North Damen, (773)227-1167
Five years of booming business at Café Milk & Honey on Division has given birth to this little satellite shop about a half-mile away, shrewdly located beneath the Damen el stop. The décor is white, modern and minimal; the short menu of pastries and sandwiches—like pastrami and white cheddar with horseradish-mustard and Portobello mushroom with fontina on ciabatta—is as thoughtfully constructed as the one at the parent store. It’s primarily a carry out business, tailored for commuters who need breakfast or a sandwich on the run.
The Indie Coffeehouse Guide was written by Thomas Barbee, Laura Castellano, Molly Each, Fruzsina Eordogh, Jason Foumberg, Angeline Gragasin, Sharon Hoyer, Paul Karner, Sarah Nardi, Ray Pride, Stephanie Ratanas, Sean Redmond, Britany Salsbury, Elizabeth Seeskin, Andy Seifert, Maude Standish and John Thompson.