I’ve always liked La Colombe, the Philadelphia-based chain, ever since visiting the amazing Dilworth Plaza branch near Philadelphia’s City Hall. I’ve now visited a number of branches, and, other than the coffee, they all have one thing in common: they occupy amazing physical spaces. This is something that La Colombe shares with the UK’s Boston Tea Party: taking iconic buildings and turning them into amazing coffee shops. Like the Boston Tea Party, La Colombe manages the trick of making each branch simultaneously its own place and yet obviously a La Colombe.
In this respect, the Wicker Park branch, one of four (soon to be five) in Chicago, is no different. Almost directly underneath the elevated Blue Line, which thunders above Milwaukee Avenue, La Colombe is opposite Damen station, occupying a large, rectangular building with a glass front, high ceilings and exposed brick walls. Add in windows at the back and it’s a wonderfully light and airy space.
There’s all the usual La Colombe goodness, with multiple choices on espresso, bulk-brew and pour-over. All the coffee is roasted in-house, in a facility a few blocks from the coffee shop which supplies all La Colombe’s Mid-west outlets. There’s also loose-leaf tea and a range of cakes/pastries.
I feel a little bad about taking so long to write up Buzz Killer Espresso, since it was the first place I visited in Chicago when I was there last October as part of my around the world trip. However, given that I’m sort of back in Chicago (I’m actually in Madison all week), it seems the perfect opportunity to rectify this.
Buzz Killer is just off Milwaukee Avenue to the northwest of Chicago’s centre, in the area known as Wicker Park, one of the longer-standing members of a cluster of great coffee shops which includes Ipsento 606, La Colombe and Wormhole Coffee. Buzz Killer roasts all its own coffee, with a house-blend on espresso, plus a blend and a three seasonal single-origins on V60. There’s also decaf, while the bulk-brewer, that staple of the American coffee shop, is mercifully absent.
Buzz Killer occupies an interesting spot, offering a small, sheltered outside seating area and two contrasting floors. Downstairs (which is ironically up a flight of stairs from the street) is full of little tables, tucked away in corners, while upstairs is bright and open, filled with light and with a simple row of tables, plus a large, communal table.
Although I didn’t visit the city on this trip, to celebrate my return to the Chicago area, I present Monday’s Coffee Spot, Café Integral. I first came across Café Integral in New York City this time last year when I visited its original location, inside the American Two Shot clothing store. Naturally, I was keen to try out the Chicago branch, which is in the lobby of the Freehand Hotel in Chicago’s River North. This came highly recommended by none other than champion flat white inhaler, Runaway Kiwi. She’d checked it out earlier in the year, declaring it her favourite place in Chicago. You can’t get a better endorsement than that!
What makes Café Integral stand out from the crowd is its focus on Nicaraguan coffee. The Vega family, which owns Café Integral, has close ties with several farms in the country. There are now two coffee shops in New York as well as this one in Chicago, which makes it a national chain. Sort of. All the coffee is sourced in Nicaragua and roasted in Brooklyn. There’s usually one option on espresso, bulk-brew and pour-over, all backed up by a small, but interesting food menu and decent cake selection.
When I used to stay in downtown Chicago, my hotel was just around the corner from Tempo Café, an amazing 24-hour diner in Chicago’s Near North (I say “used to stay”: it was all of three times!). However, I loved the place and made sure I visited for breakfast at least twice on each trip. Therefore, when I was back in Chicago as part of my coast-to-coast extravaganza last year, and unexpectedly found myself north of the river, I made a beeline to Tempo for a late brunch.
Tempo, along with Boston’s Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe, is one of my favourite American diners, although compared to Charlie’s, it’s a very different place, slightly more upmarket in layout and feel, but still great value for money. All the usual diner staples are there, but you can also get full meals and everything is available 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Comfort food at its best!
Ipsento 606 is the second branch of Chicago veteran, Ipsento, which has been serving great coffee for 10 years now from its home on Western Avenue. Ipsento 606, in contrast, opened this summer and while just a few blocks away on Milwaukee Avenue, it takes its name from The 606, the elevated walkway which is just a few steps away from its front door.
Ipsento 606 is something of a rarity in American: coffee shop by day, cocktail bar by night. While this model has found a great deal of traction in the UK (think of Notes, Fernandez & Wells, Grind and Beany Green in London and the likes of Filter + Fox, The Attic and the Artigiano chain around the UK), I can only think of a few US examples (Philadelphia’s Double Knot springs to mind as an obvious example).
I can only speak to the coffee shop part of the operation, but anywhere with not one, but two Slayer espresso machines, plus a single-group Modbar dedicated to single-origin espresso must be doing something right! There’s also the obligatory bulk-brew, plus a range of single-origins on pour-over, all roasted in a dedicated facility just up the road.
Welcome to fourth and final instalment of my Brian’s Travel Spot series, which started with my flight out to Hong Kong, continued with my adventures in Hong Kong itself and then moved onto Shanghai, where I was spent a week on business before having the weekend to explore. This instalment covers the final leg of the trip, Chicago, where I spent 10 days staying with friends before flying home, completing my first round-the-world trip in the process.
The more observant amongst you will notice that I haven’t actually finished my Hong Kong or Shanghai posts, but I wanted to get this post on the Coffee Spot before I actually completed my travels. It’s been a weird trip for me: because I was working in Shanghai and then staying with friends in Chicago, I’ve had very little spare time, so between keeping the Coffee Spot up-to-date, doing the day job, and socialising with my colleagues (Shanghai) and friends (Chicago), I’ve had very little time to do these Travel Spot posts. As a result, you can expect to see regular updates coming along for all three posts between now and the end of year!
A quick word about Chicago: although I say I was staying in “Chicago”, my friends live in Chicago in the same sense that I live in London (the point being that I actually live in Guildford). With that out of the way, let’s get on with the Travel Spot.
Intelligentsia has been part of my journey towards speciality coffee, long before the Coffee Spot came to be. In particular, I’ve been a semi-regular visitor to the Intelligentsia in the Monadnock Building, on Jackson Boulevard. Having written about it on my previous visit to Chicago last summer, I thought it was about time I visited another branch. Ideally, it would have been the original Intelligentsia in Lake View, but fate had other plans, so instead I found myself a few blocks away from the Old Town branch.
This is a relatively new addition to the Intelligentsia stable, having opened in 2013, the fifth of six Chicago branches. It was also the first Intelligentsia to share premises with another business, a model that was followed with the High Line Hotel in NYC. In the case of the Old Town branch, it shares with plum market, an upmarket grocery store which occupies the north end of the space, Intelligentsia tagged on at the southern end, a long, table-lined corridor connecting the two. As well as the usual Intelligentsia offering of espresso-based drinks, bulk-brew and pour-over, you can get food from plum market and bring it over to eat with your coffee.
I discovered Asado Coffee when visiting Chicago last summer on my coast-to-coast train trip across the USA. Jeff Liberman, one of Asado’s co-owners, met me when I arrived at Union Station, giving me a behind-the-scenes tour of Asado’s Pickwick Place branch (which has now changed hands) down in the Loop before adding a bonus tour of the River North branch. This was interesting because it hadn’t yet opened, although it was all kitted out and ready to go. It’s the first time I’ve been in a fully-functioning coffee shop before it’s opened. As it turned out, River North would have to wait another five months before Asado finally opened its doors. Hopefully my descriptions aren’t too out-of-date!
At the time of writing, Asado was a coffee shop/roaster chain with four branches in downtown Chicago, although that’s now down to two as of August 2016. Asado roasts all its own coffee, with both shops having their own bespoke analogue roaster. Asado’s other main quirk is that it only uses lever espresso machines, usually from Kees van der Westen, although in the case of River North, it’s an Astoria. As well as espresso, there’s bulk-brew filter in the mornings, plus hand-poured filters throughout the day using Zero ceramic drippers from Japan.
If I was still running the Where It All Began Coffee Spot Award, then today’s Coffee Spot, Intelligentsia’s branch in the Monadnock Building, on Jackson Boulevard, right in the heart of downtown Chicago, would be a shoe-in. It’s the second-ever Intelligentsia, a Chicago coffee roaster which now boasts six coffee shops in that city, plus three in Los Angeles and the High Line Hotel in New York City.
I think the Jackson Boulevard branch opened in 2002, but it was certainly there when I first visited Chicago in 2003. It’s quite possibly the first speciality coffee shop I ever visited, although back then I had no idea that speciality coffee shops existed. All I knew was that Intelligentsia served exceptionally good coffee.
Since then, I’ve become a regular visitor, regular in that I pop in whenever I’m in downtown Chicago. My latest visits came as part of my coast-to-coast trip across the USA last year, when I called into Intelligentsia twice, once when I arrived in Chicago and again, two days later, when I left. I’m pleased to say that it looks and feels very much how I remember it from that first visit all those years ago in 2003…
Asado is a small coffee shop/roaster chain with three (soon to be four) branches in downtown Chicago. I’d already planned to visit Asado’s branch on Jackson Boulevard (Pickwick Place), a block from an old favourite of mine, Intelligentsia, when I was coincidentally introduced to Jeff Liberman, one of Asado’s co-owners. As a result, I got a behind the scenes tour, which you can read about in Brian’s Travel Spot.
Asado occupies its own private alley, Pickwick Place, a narrow dead-end on the north side of Jackson Boulevard. If that doesn’t sound very appealing, then think again, since it’s one of the best locations I’ve seen for a coffee shop (in good weather, at least!). Sheltered on both sides by tall buildings, all the seating (bar for a single chair) is outside in the alley, a beautiful, south-facing sun trap.
Asado roasts all its own coffee, each of its locations having its own bespoke analogue roaster. Due to space limitations, Pickwick Place is the exception to this rule. Despite this lack of space, it still manages a full espresso menu, pulled on a beautiful Kees van der Westen lever machine, plus individual hand-poured filter, supplemented with bulk-brew filter when it’s busy.
August 2016: I’ve just heard that the shop has changed hands and is now Pickwick Coffee.