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.
Welcome to today’s bonus Travel Spot. Exactly a year ago today, Amanda and I left Sunnyvale in the Bay Area, California, to catch Amtrak Train No. 6, the California Zephyr, at Emeryville Station. Roughly 60 hours and 4,000 km later, we reached our destination, Buffalo Grove, in the Chicago suburbs. This was part of a much larger, five-week trip that began in New Orleans, then saw me fly to Los Angeles so that I could take the Coast Starlight along the Pacific Coast to San Jose. From Chicago, I (eventually) flew home. One day I hope to write up the entire trip, but for now, I hope you enjoy the train ride!
The California Zephyr is a daily service between Emeryville (just across the bay from San Francisco) and Chicago, a scheduled journey of 51½ hours that crosses the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains as well as both the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers as it makes its way west-to-east across roughly two-thirds of North America. It’s the longest I’ve been on a train, beating the 47 hours I spent on the Empire Builder from Chicago to Portland (Oregon) in 2015.
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.
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…
Welcome to this, today’s bonus Travel Spot, covering a journey I took exactly a year and one day ago, when I boarded Amtrak Train No. 14, the Coast Starlight, at Los Angeles’ Union Station. This was part of a much larger, five-week trip that began in New Orleans, then saw me travel to Los Angeles, San Jose/the Bay Area and Chicago (on the California Zephyr), from where I (eventually) returned home. One day I hope to write up the entire trip, but for now, I hope you enjoy the train ride!
The Coast Starlight is a daily service between Los Angeles and Seattle, although I was only going as far as San Jose, an all-day journey that departed Los Angeles at 10:10 and arrived in San Jose at 20:11, ten hours and one minute later! It was also very cheap, a one-way advance fare in coach class costing just $60, although since I was going to be on the train for 10 hours, I’d decided to spend the extra $30 for a seat in business class. Along the way, I saw a lot of the Pacific Coast as well as some awesome mountain scenery, plus I had two excellent meals in the dining car!
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.