America and the COVID-19 Pandemic, February/March 2020

The Chicago River, looking east towards Lake Michigan, with Wells Street bridge in the foreground. It was the evening of my only full day in Chicago and the river was looking gorgeous in the late evening sunshine.My second trip of 2020 was also to America and was fundamentally shaped by the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic. Originally I had planned to go for two weeks to see Amanda in Portland (Maine), covering the last week in February and the first week in March. As it was, this was the only part of the trip that went to plan.

This was supposed to have been immediately followed by a three-week work trip to Shanghai, which would have taken up the rest of March. However, that trip was cancelled due to COVID-19 and the meetings, scheduled for the last two weeks of March, were moved to Chicago, which was convenient for me, since I was already going to be in America.

I re-planned my trip, using the extra week to go down to Atlanta with Amanda to see her mother. We travelled over the weekend, using a combination of car and train, breaking our journey with a night in New York City, which Amanda had never visited before. After spending the week in Atlanta, I flew to Chicago for my meetings, but within a day of my arrival, the city went into shutdown and I decided to return home, hastily rearranging my flight back via Boston.

The trip itself is covered in the Travel Spots below, while you can also read about the Coffee Spots I visited in Portland, New York City, Atlanta and Chicago.


Header Image: a view of Boston, where I started and ended this trip (even though I didn’t visit the city) as seen from my flight from Chicago, looking across Carson Beach to Back Bay and the Financial District.


Travel Spots

You can read about the trip in the following Travel Spot posts.

Brian’s Travel Spot: Back to Boston in Economy

Making my own coffee on my flight to from London Heathrow to Boston Logan, using my faithful Espro Travel Press and my Knock Aergrind. Beans by Hundred House.Welcome to the second Travel Spot of 2020, which follows hot on the heels of the first. So far this year I’ve flown business class (London to San Jose), premium economy (my return from Boston) and now I’ve made it all the way to the back of the plane, flying economy on my return to Boston from London earlier this week.

Mind you, this trip is somewhat different than the one I’d originally planned. It was supposed to be a two-week there-and-back trip to Portland to see Amanda. However, that was before coronavirus/COVID-19 caused the cancellation of March’s work trip to Shanghai, the meetings being switched to Chicago instead. As a result, rather than fly back to the UK next weekend, I’m heading down to Atlanta, then flying to Chicago, not returning until the end of March, when once again I’ll be flying back from Boston on the daytime flight.

As usual, I’m flying with British Airways to/from the US. I’m also flying to/from Chicago (with American Airlines). However, Amanda and I will be taking the train down to Atlanta which should be fun! Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself: this Travel Spot is all about flying economy to Boston.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Portland to Atlanta by Car & Train

Locomotive 608, hauling Amtrak Train 19, The Crescent, from New York Penn Station to Washington DC Union Station before it is switched out for two diesel locomotives which take the train on to New Orleans.Welcome to the second instalment of this, the second Travel Spot of 2020. The first part covered my journey to Boston, flying in economy with British Airways, before catching the coach up to Portland, where I spent the next two weeks with Amanda. This instalment involves our journey down to Atlanta to see Amanda’s mother, while the next two parts cover my onward journey to Chicago and my return home from there.

Amanda and I had plenty of options to get from Portland (Maine) to Atlanta, the most obvious one being to fly. However, neither of us is a great fan of flying internally in the US, and, since we had time, we decided to look at other options. One alternative was driving, something Amanda’s done before, although it’s a one-way trip of 1,200 miles, which amounts to about 19 hours behind the wheel, so I ruled it out.

That left the train, a mode of transport which we both enjoy. It wasn’t the cheapest, nor was it the quickest, but it definitely sounded the most enjoyable, so we booked tickets on Amtrak’s Train 19, Crescent, from New York to Atlanta, building our trip around that.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: The Demise of Amtrak's Full Dining Service

Amtrak's new "contemporary" menu on its Viewliner sleeper services: prepacked meals, delivered in a paper bag, a far cry from the full service dining cars it replaced. Bottom, my vegan Asian noodle bowl, and top, Amanda's red wine braised beef.One of the great pleasures of taking Amtrak’s long-distance trains used to be the dining car, where you could enjoy three hot meals a day, cooked to order from a varied menu, along with dessert and full table service. While this is still true on services running west of the magical line from Chicago to New Orleans, since the start of October last year, Amtrak has replaced its full dining service on all other sleeper services (except the Silver Star from New York to Miami, which is due to move to the new service on 1st May this year).

Although the new service is touted as an “upgrade” by Amtrak, it’s anything but. Having experienced (and loved) the full service dining car, what’s replaced it is vastly inferior, as Amanda and I discovered when we took the train from New York to Atlanta at the start of this month. Instead of a bustling dining car, full of happy passengers, we found a near empty carriage, grumpy staff and, while the food was good, the menu was limited (particularly if you don’t eat meat). As an experience, it was an immense disappointment, fundamentally detracting from the enjoyment of our journey.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Flying from Atlanta to Chicago

Making my own coffee in the Admirals Club at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport. On display are my Travel Press and Aergrind, with beans from Tandem Coffee Roasters and hot water from the lounge's coffee machine.Welcome to the third instalment of this, the second (and possibly last, the way things are going) Travel Spot of 2020, all about my trip to America just before the COVID-19 crisis. Part 1 covered my flight to Boston with British Airways to spend a couple of weeks with Amanda in Portland. In Part 2, Amanda and I travelled from Portland to Atlanta by a combination of car and train to visit her mother. Then, after a week in the Atlanta suburbs, we parted company and I flew to Chicago, which is the subject of today’s Travel Spot. I was supposed to be there for two weeks, although subsequent events radically altered that plan!

It's now exactly three weeks since I made that flight and, sitting here, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels very surreal to be writing about taking an internal flight in the US when so much has changed since then. However, at the time I flew, although people were starting to take precautions against catching COVID-19, everything seemed pretty normal. Little did I know at the time that this would be the last “normal” flight I’m likely to take for who knows how long!

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Heading Home – Chicago to Boston

My Global WAKEcup, full of coffee I'd just made in the lounge and brought on the plane with me before my flight from Chicago to Boston.Welcome to the fourth instalment of this, the second (and possibly last) Travel Spot of 2020. It covers my recent trip to America, which began when I flew to Boston at the end of February. It’s been shaped throughout by the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, no more so than at the end of the trip. I’d originally planned to return at the end of March, but, as you’ll see, that’s not quite what happened.

I’d arrived in Chicago on Saturday, 14th March, having flown in from Atlanta. Everything felt fairly normal as I settled into my usual hotel right on the corner of the Chicago River, although the hotel itself felt rather quiet. The following day was gorgeous, with clear, blue skies, the temperature hovering a few degrees above freezing.

While people were taking precautions COVID-19, the city felt pretty normal. However, by the end of the day, the Governor of Illinois had announced the closure of all bars, clubs, restaurants and cafes except for takeaway customers and I decided that it was time to head home. I rearranged my flights that evening and, the following morning, I left for the airport. When, I wonder, will I be able to return?

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Heading Home – Boston to London

My British Airways Boeing 777, waiting on the stand at Terminal 5 in Boston, ready to take me back to London. I wonder when I'll fly again?Welcome to the fifth and final instalment of this, the second (and possibly last) Travel Spot of 2020. It covers my recent trip to America, which began when I flew to Boston at the end of February. At that point I’d expected to spend five weeks in the US, culminating with two weeks in Chicago for work. However, as I explained in the previous instalment, the rapidly evolving COVID-19 pandemic saw me abruptly cut short my trip the day after I arrived in Chicago, when I decided to head home.

I flew from Chicago to Boston on Monday, 16th March, staying overnight in an airport hotel so that I could catch my hastily rearranged flight back to the UK the following morning. It was a surreal experience, arriving at a near-deserted Chicago O’Hare airport on what should have been a busy Monday morning. However, that was nothing compared to my flight back to the UK, which is the subject of today’s Travel Spot.

It was as if someone had thrown a switch, changing the world almost overnight. When I’d flown to Chicago from Atlanta just three days before, the world had seemed pretty normal. Now it was anything but…

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Coffee Spots

You can read about all the Coffee Spots I visited in Portland, New York City, Atlanta and Chicago on this trip, all listed alphabetically by city, starting with Portland (Maine).

Portland

Little Woodfords

The Little Woodfords sign, hanging outside the store on Forest Avenue in Portland, Maine. It's a design based on the clock tower which sits atop of the building and reads "little woodfords | coffee + snacks".Little Woodfords is in the Woodfords Corner neighbourhood of Portland, just west of Back Cove. The staff at Tandem Coffee Roasters tipped me off when I was visiting Amanda last summer and, while we popped in on that trip, I didn’t have a chance to write it up. As a result, on my return to Portland last week, I made it a priority to call in, visiting one sunny Tuesday morning.

Little Woodfords occupies a bright, spacious spot on the busy Forest Avenue, close to its junction with Woodford Street. It’s fairly small, but feels much bigger thanks to the high ceilings (I would guess at least 4 metres) and a tall bay window that runs the full width of the store front, catching the midday and afternoon sun.

The coffee’s from Vivid Coffee Roasters in Vermont, with a single option on espresso, batch brew and flash brew (a pour-over over ice, akin to a Japanese iced coffee). The coffee changes every six months, Little Woodfords working with Vivid to select the particular bean/blend. There’s also tea, hot cocoa and several latte-based specials. If you’re hungry, there’s a small breakfast menu, with various toppings on bagels/biscuits, complete with gluten-free options.

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Speckled Ax

A square with the motif of an axe buried head-first in a tree-trunk above the word COFFEESpeckled Ax joins fellow roasters-cum-coffee shops, Bard Coffee and Tandem Coffee Roasters, to form a small and vibrant specialty coffee scene in Portland (Maine). Speckled Ax started life as a roaster in 2007 (under the name “Matt’s Wood Roasted Organic Coffee”), with the coffee shop following five years later in 2012, prompting the name-change to “Speckled Ax”.

Situated on Congress Street, just west of the centre of Portland, Speckled Ax is long and thin, with the counter at the back and tables along either side. There’s a neat seating area in the window at the front, with benches clustered around a tree stump. This acts as a coffee table, instantly reminding me of the window-seating in Menagerie Coffee in Philadelphia.

Speckled Ax’s particular claim to fame is that it is one of just a handful of wood-fired coffee roasters in the USA (reminiscent of Witney’s Ue Coffee Roasters in the UK). Speckled Ax offers one or two single-origin espressos, plus decaf, in the shop through its Synesso espresso machine. There are usually three more single-origins available as filter, through the syphon, V60, Chemex or Aeropress, depending on your particular requirements. There’s also bulk-brew until 11am if you’re in a hurry.

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Tandem Coffee + Bakery

A dual-hopper Malhkonig Coffee Grinder with three bags of Tandem Coffee Roasters coffee in front of it, each with Tandem's logo of a stick-figure tandem bicycle.A highlight of last summer’s (brief) visit to Portland was Tandem Coffee Roasters, the roastery doubling as a lovely, intimate coffee bar. I was staying on the opposite side of town and Google Maps suggested I’d pass Tandem Coffee + Bakery on my way. So off I went, keeping an eye out for said bakery, only to walk right past without noticing!

My excuse? I, fool that I am, was looking for something bearing a vague resemblance to a bakery. Instead, I should have been keeping an eye out for something bearing a striking resemblance to a gas (petrol) station… Obviously. I discovered my mistake at the roastery, so on my way back, I paid more attention: there, right where Google Maps said it was, I discovered the bakery, occupying an old gas station.

Just as Tandem Cafe & Roastery’s a roastery with coffee bar attached, so Tandem Coffee + Bakery’s a bakery with coffee shop attached. And lovely outdoor seating. It doesn’t have quite the same range as the roastery, just a house-blend and single-origin on espresso, the same single-origin on Aeropress and another on bulk-brew. Being a bakery, there’s also multiple savoury and sweet things to feast upon.

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New York City

You can read about all the Coffee Spots I visited in New York City on this trip (listed alphabetically).

Café Grumpy, Chelsea

The somewhat unwelcoming Cafe Grumpy sign: an elongated oval, stylised as a face, with frowning eyebrows and a downturned mouth.I was introduced to Café Grumpy by Bluestone Lane, who told me about their fellow Aussies when I visited the Bluestone’s Broad Street branch. Two days later I was looking for somewhere for lunch, so I sought out Café Grumpy’s Chelsea branch on New York’s W 20th Street.

The first Café Grumpy opened in Brooklyn in 2005, while this is the second (of eight) branches of the bizarrely-named chain (I say this because, generally speaking, I find Aussies to be one of the most consistently upbeat of peoples, so to call your coffee shop chain “Café Grumpy” takes a certain sense of irony). Café Grumpy roasts all its own coffee in a dedicated roastery and has made its name with its pour-over coffee, which, in the land of the obligatory flask of bulk-brew, is still something of a novelty.

If you like your espresso-based drinks, you’re also well-catered for, with the Heartbreaker blend being joined on the Synesso espresso machine by a single-origin (a Kenya Peaberry during my visit) and decaf (from Costa Rica). There are also four single-origins on the pour-over menu (a Guatemalan, a Mexican and two Kenyans), one of which is also available through the aforementioned bulk-brewer.

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Café Grumpy, Fashion District

A flat white from Café Grumpy, in an orange, six-ounce tulip cup.Regular readers will know that I have a soft-spot for Brooklyn-based, Aussie-influenced roaster/coffee-shop chain, Café Grumpy. I first came across its Chelsea branch in 2015, before discovering that its Lower East Side branch is just around the corner from my hotel on my return in 2016. On that trip, I also discovered one of Café Grumpy’s more recent branches, right in the heart of New York City in the Fashion District.

This has all the hallmarks of Café Grumpy, including its trademark no laptop policy. While you can argue with the merits or otherwise of this, Café Grumpy’s very upfront about this. The coffee offering’s the same across all branches: house-blend, single-origin and decaf on espresso, five single-origins (including a decaf) on pour-over and two more on bulk-brew. It’s also worth remembering that while now it seems that everyone on the East Coast’s offering pour-over, Café Grumpy was doing it long before it was trendy.

In terms of layout, the Fashion District branch takes the no laptop philosophy to its logical conclusion. The seating consists of two large, communal tables, plus a bench at the back. While you can sit quietly by yourself, it really is designed to promote communication!

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Terremoto Coffee

The Terremoto Coffee logo, taken from the A-board outside the coffee shop on W 15th Street in New York.I’m indebted to Bex of Double Skinny Macchiato (and her excellent New York Speciality Coffee Map) for the heads-up on today’s Coffee Spot, Terremoto Coffee. Amanda and I were in New York City for less than 24 hours, en-route from Portland (Maine) to Atlanta. Other than quick stops at Café Grumpy in both the Fashion District and Chelsea, we only had time for one prolonged stop, which was at Terremoto.

There’s not much to Terremoto, just a bench outside and three small tables inside, but size is no limit to its ambition when it comes to coffee. Its most eye-catching feature is the gold Slayer espresso machine, but the real star is the coffee itself. Terremoto serves a wide selection of single-origins on both espresso and pour-over (Kalita Wave), one of which is also available on batch brew, plus there’s a small selection of cakes and pastries if you are hungry.

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Trying Eugenioides at Terremoto

The rare the Eugenioides coffee species in a cortado at Terromoto Coffee in Chelsea, New York City.In the wild, coffee has over 120 individual species. However, two species dominate commercially grown coffee: Arabica and Robusta, with Arabica accounting for the vast majority of speciality coffee. Other species are occasionally commercially grown, and last weekend at Terremoto Coffee in New York, Amanda and I were presented with Coffea eugenioides, a rare species indigenous to the East African highlands, including Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and western Tanzania.

Coffea eugenioides (Eugenioides for short) is, in fact, one of Arabica’s two parent species, the other being Robusta. The Eugenioides at Terremoto was roasted by Neat, a roaster/importer in Darien, Connecticut, and comes from a farm, Las Nubes, in Colombia. Naturally, we had to try it, ending up with a pour-over, an espresso and, to try it in milk, a cortado. Our barista also provided us with a shot of the house espresso (a washed Colombian) and a batch brew sample (a washed Honduran) for comparison!

Normally, I’d write this up as part of my description of the coffee shop, but since Eugenioides is so different from anything that I’ve tried before, I’ve dedicated this entire Saturday Supplement to it, with Terremoto featuring in its own Coffee Spot.

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Atlanta

You can read about all the Coffee Spots I visited in Atlanta on this trip (listed alphabetically).

Dancing Goats Midtown

The logo for The Dancing Goats® Coffee Bar , a goat dancing on its hind legs holding a cup of coffee, taken from the sign outside the Midtown location in Atlanta.I didn’t have much chance to visit coffee shops during the week in I spent in Atlanta with Amanda, since we were staying in the suburbs, a 40-minute drive from the city. We visited Octane: Westside and Firelight Coffee Roasters when we arrived on the train from New York, but the next time we were in the city centre was on my way to the airport for my flight to Chicago at the end of my stay.

We could have gone straight to the airport, but instead we made a detour to the Midtown reason to visit Dancing Goats (or to use its full name, The Dancing Goats® Coffee Bar Midtown). Dancing Goats (part of Batdorf & Bronson coffee roasters) is one of four Atlanta-based coffee shops (with another five in Washington State, where it all started).

Dancing Goats is firmly in the speciality coffee world, but with a mass-market offering. There’s a small espresso-based menu combined with a much larger menu offering the typical American “large” drinks, featuring 20oz lattes amongst other things. The retail coffee offering mirrors this, with multiple blends supplemented by a smaller range of single-origins. Meanwhile, if you’re hungry, there’s a small range of cake.

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Firelight Coffee Roasters

The Firelight Coffee Roasters logo from the back wall of the coffee shop/roastery in Strongbox West, Atlanta.Although I spent a week in Atlanta with Amanda, we were in the suburbs, a 40-minute drive from the city, so I didn’t have much opportunity for coffee shop visits. With that in mind, when we arrived on the train from New York, we made a beeline for Octane: Westside and, from there, went to Firelight Coffee Roasters, which had come highly recommended (not least by the baristas at Octane).

Firelight began as a roaster in 2014, moving into its current premises, at the back of the Strongbox West co-working space, in 2015. It was much smaller then, but Firelight has slowly built out into the space, which now acts as both roastery and a small, cosy coffee shop. This serves as an in-house coffee shop for Strongbox tenants as well as a tasting room for curious visitors such as Amanda and me.

The coffee offering is straightforward, with a seasonal blend on espresso, daily single-origin on batch brew and the rest of the roastery’s output (typically five single-origins) on pour-over. Just be warned, however, that Firelight only opens from 09:00 to 13:30 and is closed at weekends, with roasting taking place out of hours on Monday and Saturday afternoons.

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Octane: Westside

My cortado, made with the Petunias house-blend, at Octane: Westside in Atlanta.Until Monday, I’d never been to Atlanta. The closest I’d come was passing through Peachtree Station en-route to New Orleans two years ago. I also managed a brief stop at the airport in January on my way to Portland. However, on Monday this week, Amanda and I stepped off Amtrak’s Crescent Service (the very same train that I caught to New Orleans) and I was in Atlanta. Naturally, our thoughts to turned to coffee, and where better to start than with Octane?

Octane was a pioneer of Atlanta’s speciality coffee scene until it was bought in 2017 by Revelator Coffee, much to the consternation of many. Octane had several locations in the city, but the subject of today’s Coffee Spot, Octane: Westside, is, I believe, the original and the only one to retain the Octane name.

Located in a converted garage, it’s a large, spacious place, with a small amount of outside seating and limited parking. The Petunias blend is on espresso, with two single-origins on pour-over via the Chemex. If you want something stiffer, there’s a full bar, offering a wide range of drinks from 11:30 each day. If you’re hungry, there’s a broad selection of cakes and savouries.

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Chicago

You can read about all the Coffee Spots I visited in Chicago on this trip (listed alphabetically).

Fairgrounds Bucktown

Fairgrounds, Craft Coffee & Tea | Taste One, Taste All, written on the back wall at the Bucktown location in Chicago.I became aware of Fairgrounds Craft Coffee and Tea when I discovered the Infuse Coffee & Tea Bar inside my office building at River Point North. Although Infuse runs in-house coffee bars, the staff told me about Fairgrounds, Infuse’s sister company which runs cafés. That was in 2017, when Infuse had just opened, although it’s taken me another 2½ years before I’ve managed to visit Fairgrounds, although for once I’ve done it right, visiting its Bucktown location, which, like Infuse, opened in 2017, along with another Fairgrounds in The Loop.

Although it started in Chicago, Fairgrounds now has cafés in Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Los Angeles to join the (currently) three Chicago locations, plus two more in the suburbs. They all have the same mission, which is shared with Infuse: to serve a wide range of excellent coffee on espresso and filter, plus cold brew, nitro brew, various elixirs and tea. To this end, there’s a blend, decaf and rotating single-origin on espresso, plus three more blends, a further three single-origins and a decaf on pour-over, sourced from roasters across America. If you’re hungry, Fairgrounds had an all-day breakfast menu, sandwiches, salad bowls and soup, plus various snacks, bites and cake.

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Intelligentsia, Wicker Park

The latte art in my decaf cappuccino, served at Intelligentsia, Wicker Park in Chicago.Just before the full onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I spent a day exploring Wicker Park, one of many Chicago neighbourhood clustered along Milwaukee Avenue. I visited three coffee shops along the way, Fairgrounds Craft Coffee and Tea, Purple Llama (now sadly permanently closed) and the subject of today’s Coffee Spot, Intelligentsia. It’s appropriate that, in the week that I wrote about Canopy Coffee, the first coffee shop I visited since the easing of COVID-19 restrictions in the UK, that I should also feature the last coffee shop I visited before COVID-19 forced many coffee shops to close.

As regular readers know, I have a soft spot for Intelligentsia, one of Chicago’s pioneering roaster/coffee shop chains. I first visited its coffee bar in the Monadnock Building on Jackson Boulevard in 2003, long before my Coffee Spot days. The Wicker Park location is a more recent addition, occupying an open, light-filled space on the ground floor of an apartment block on the corner of Division and Ashland. There’s the usual Intelligentsia offering of coffee, Kilogram tea, cakes/savouries and a large retail selection. There are three espresso options: Black Cat, single-origin and decaf, while pour-over and batch-brew each have their own single-origin.

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Purple Llama

The Purple Llama sign, hanging outside the coffee/record shop on West Division in Chicago.In mid-March, I’d just arrived in Chicago and was looking forward to spending a couple of weeks exploring the city’s excellent speciality coffee scene, interleaved with a series of work calls in the late afternoons/evenings. In the end, I managed just one day before the COVID-19 pandemic cut short my trip and I beat a hasty path for home. Today’s Coffee Spot, Purple Llama, is one of three coffee shops that I managed to visit on my single day in Chicago.

Purple Llama is on West Division Street, where it runs along the southern edge of Chicago’s Wicker Park neighbourhood. It feels like it’s been on my list forever, since so many people mention it to me, but, in reality, it’s only been three years since Purple Llama first opened in April 2017.

Purple Llama combines speciality coffee and music, offering a range of vinyl records for sale alongside some outstanding coffee. A multi-roaster, the coffee is drawn from a selection of roasters across the US and Europe, with the specific beans on offer changing once a week. There are multiple options on espresso, batch-brew and pour-over, along with around 10 teas and a range of cakes if you’re hungry.

April 2020: Sad news. I believe that due to COVID-19, Purple Llama has decided to permanently close.

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