While the Coffee Spot champions the independent coffee shop rather than the chains, successful coffee shops often evolve into small chains. There’s no hard-and-fast rule as to what counts as a mini chain, what gets included here and when a chain gets so large that it won’t feature in the Coffee Spot.
I have a soft spot for Intelligentsia, a Chicago institution for more than 20 years, where I took some of my earliest steps in speciality coffee, long before I even knew what it was. Intelligentsia has been slowly expanding across the USA, with shops in Los Angeles, New York City and Austin. Now it’s reached New England with two Boston locations, one in Watertown and this one, right in the heart of the downtown on Post Office Square.
Occupying a large counter at the back of the lobby of office building 225 Franklin Street, the coffee bar has a fairly standard Intelligentsia offering, with the familiar Black Cat espresso blend joined by a seasonal guest and decaf, while for filter coffee, there are two options on pour-over and one on batch brew. This is backed up by a range of Kilogram Tea, plus cakes and pastries from The Danish Pastry House. You can sit at the coffee bar, at one of three window tables or take your coffee and find a seat in the lobby.
As the name suggests, La Colombe, Seaport is in Boston’s Seaport District, just across Fort Point Channel from Downtown Boston. Although the address is Northern Avenue, it’s actually around the corner on the pedestrian strip connecting it with Seaport Boulevard. A fairly small shop, with just seven tables inside, this doesn’t stop it from providing the full La Colombe offering of two options on espresso, another two on batch-brew and two more on pour-over. There’s also a range of in-house teas and draft lattes and, if you’re hungry, cakes and pastries. For now, La Colombe only uses takeaway cups, so don’t forget to bring your own.
I was able to rectify this oversight on my latest trip to America, when, on my way back to Portland (Maine) from Washington DC, I had a couple of hours to kill at Boston’s South Station, where you’ll find La Colombe on the other side of Atlantic Avenue, directly opposite the entrance to the bus terminal. Off the foyer of a modern office building, it’s a large, spacious coffee shop with its own street entrance. The classic La Colombe offering sees two options on espresso, another two on batch-brew and two more on pour-over. There’s also a range of in-house teas and draft lattes and, if you’re hungry, cakes and items from the grab-and-go fridge.
This is a first for the Coffee Spot. Almost four years ago to the day, I was in Intelligentsia on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, Los Angeles, following a recommendation from Lee Gaze of Silhouette. It was during my first visit to the city and, while I really liked it, I didn’t have time to finish my write up during my busy trip, so it languished on my hard drive instead. As weeks turned to months, and months turned to years, it seemed increasingly pointless to publish an out-of-date Coffee Spot, so that’s where it stayed, languished on my hard drive.
However, with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to limit both my travel and my ability to visit (and hence write about) coffee shops, at the start of the year I decided to return to my backlog of Travel Spots, which led to me to continue writing up The Grand Adventure (as I call my drive from Phoenix to San Francisco, undertaken in January 2017). And that, in turn, has provided the perfect excuse to dust off my notes and old photos of Intelligentsia…
So, let me present Intelligentsia’s Venice coffee bar, exactly as I found it three years and 363 days ago.
The container is back! Yes, that’s right, Beany Green, that little container of sunshine at the foot of the Hungerford Bridge on the South Bank, is back! It had actually reopened a few weeks ago, but when I went up to London in mid-July, I discovered that it was closed again due to essential bridge repairs. However, I was not to be denied and, when I went through London on Monday, I made of a point of calling in to find that it was open again!
For those that don’t know, this is one of the original Beany Green coffee shops, which opened in June 2014. These days it’s more a bar serving good coffee, although during the day it still has a coffee shop vibe. Essentially an outdoor operation, it hasn’t been too badly affected by COVID-19, although it (and the surrounding area) is much quieter than it used to be.
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.
Verve Coffee Roasters, which began in Santa Cruz, California, has spread out along the Pacific Coast, with locations in nearby San Francisco to the north and Los Angeles to the south. It’s also crossed the ocean to Japan, where it has coffee shops in Tokyo and Kamakura. Although I haven’t been to all the Verves, I decided that I would visit at least one coffee shop in each city, crossing off Kamakura, the last on my list, when visiting Japan last year. Which was where the staff told me about the new Palo Alto coffee shop. I swear they’re doing this deliberately! So, when I was in the Bay Area for work at the start of this month, I popped up to Palo Alto on the Caltrain to tick that one off my list.
Verve occupies a corner spot a block from the station, with a large outdoor seating area right on the corner, backed up by a bright, spacious interior with plenty more seating. The coffee offering will be familiar to anyone who has been to a Verve before, as will the twin Kees van der Westen Spirit espresso machines. There’s also food until 2pm and cakes all day.
If you’re familiar with Verve, then the coffee offering will come as no surprise. There’s the Streetlevel seasonal blend on espresso, joined by a single-origin and decaf, while on filter, Verve has a blend on batch brew and five single-origins, plus decaf on pour-over. There’s also my favourite, the one-and-one, plus a coffee flight, where you can compare three of the pour-over options side-by-side. Meanwhile, if you’re hungry, you can choose from three savoury waffles, three sweet waffles and three toast-based dishes.
I’ve a long-standing soft spot for Intelligentsia, the Chicago-based veteran speciality coffee roaster and coffee shop chain. Indeed, I learnt to enjoy speciality coffee through its Black Cat espresso blend in the Monadnock coffee bar on Jackson Boulevard in The Loop long before I knew what speciality coffee was. Since then, Intelligentsia has spread its wings, with six Chicago locations, plus outposts on the West Coast (four Los Angeles locations) and East Coast (High Line Hotel in New York City and now two branches in Boston).
The Millennium Park coffee bar, down in The Loop, is the fourth Chicago Intelligentsia I’ve visited and the only surprise is that it’s taken me so long. Occupying a simple spot, it’s a large, open, high-ceiling space with, given the size, minimal interior seating in an uncluttered layout, plus a small outside seating area. The coffee, as ever, is excellent, Black Cat, decaf and a daily single-origin leading the way on espresso, another single-origin on batch brew and two more on pour-over, all changing daily. The pour-over, by the way, uses the (new to me) Poursteady automatic system. There’s also a wide range of Kilogram Teas and a small cake and savoury selection.
Verve Coffee Roasters, the international coffee shop/roaster chain, is primarily California-based. Starting in Santa Cruz, where it has four outlets, including its flagship Pacific Avenue store, it’s spread to Los Angeles (three, soon to be four¸ locations), San Francisco, and across the Pacific to Japan, where there are now three outposts. Having visited its Omotesando store in Tokyo last year, and its Spring Street location in Los Angeles earlier during this trip, calling in on today’s Coffee Spot, Verve’s solitary San Francisco location, meant that I’d visited all four cities where Verve has stores. Except that Verve is also in Kamakura in Japan. Bugger. Oh well, I’ll be in Japan later this year…
You’ll find the usual coffee options, the Streetlevel seasonal blend joined by the featured espresso (another blend, Sermon, during my visit) and decaf, all the shots pulled on a custom four-group Kees van der Westen. Meanwhile, the batch-brew option is joined by three single-origin pour-overs through Kalita Wave filters using the Modbar modular system. If you’re hungry, there’s a small brunch menu until two o’clock, with cake/pastries served all day. All the coffee’s available in retail bags, along with a selection of merchandising and coffee equipment.