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.
Willa Jean, in New Orleans’ Central Business District, is many things to many people. It was recommended to me as a brunch place, although I ended up going there for dinner, where there’s a choice of full table service, or, if you’re dining solo, a spot at the counter or window-bar, where you can order anything from snacks to full meals. It’s also a lunch spot and a bakery with a fantastic range of cakes. And some awesome pies, all baked in-house.
Oh, and then there’s the coffee, which I discovered on my first visit. Willa Jean uses Chicago’s very own Intelligentsia, with options on espresso and batch-brew, plus a pair of single-origin pour-overs through the V60. Good restaurants, even those with more of a café style such as Willa Jean, rarely have really good coffee, so I felt obliged to pop back two days later to try it out.
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.
Regular readers will know that I have a soft spot for Intelligentsia, the Chicago-based roaster/coffee shop chain with six branches in the city and others in Boston, New York and Los Angeles. Some of my earliest speciality coffee experiences came in its branch in the Monadnock Building on Jackson Boulevard and, in many ways, it wouldn’t be a visit to Chicago without at least one coffee from Intelligentsia. Since I’ve been confined to my hotel on my current trip by the freezing temperatures (down to -30°C, so cold that even the coffee bar in the lobby was closed), I thought I would take us back to warmer times, when I popped into Intelligentsia’s Logan Square branch on my previous visit to Chicago in August last year.
There’s the usual Intelligentsia offering, with a choice on espresso: the classic Black Cat blend, a seasonal single-origin and decaf, plus another single-origin on pour-over and a third through batch-brew. Unusually for speciality coffee, the pour-over is priced to reflect the extra effort required, coming in at twice the price of the batch-brew. If you don’t fancy coffee, there’s a good tea selection, plus, if you’re hungry, there’s a range of cakes and doughnuts.
It’s a sign of how much I’m travelling and how many great coffee shops there are around the world that today’s bonus Coffee Spot is from one of last year’s trips, when I spent a day dashing around Washington DC in the rain. Chinatown Coffee Co is one of the capital’s stalwarts, having first opened its doors in 2009. Long and thin, it’s a cross between a corridor and a basement, a little reminiscent of the Dupont Circle branch of Filter Coffeehouse, which was my first ever speciality coffee experience in DC.
Chinatown’s stock-in-trade is the Black Cat espresso blend from Chicago-based, Intelligentsia. This is joined by a decaf espresso and four single-origins, available as V60, cafetiere or syphon, with two of them on the obligatory bulk-brew. Here Intelligentsia is joined by Portland’s Heart Coffee Roasters, with a new coffee appearing on the menu every two weeks. You can also buy a range of the beans to take home with you. Finally, there’s a selection of organic tea if you don’t fancy coffee.
If you’re hungry, there’s a range of pastries and cakes, plus a small selection of chocolate. On the savory side, there are sandwiches from Broodje & Bier.
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…