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The Coffee Spot Guide to Chicago
My original plan had been to publish this guide to coincide with my trip to Chicago in March, 2020. However, my trip was radically cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic: I arrived on Saturday, changed on my plans on Sunday and left on Monday. As a result, this guide was never published. As I write, in October 2020, with the future looking as uncertain as ever, I’m not sure when I’ll be able to return to Chicago, so it seems as good a time as any to finally publish the guide.
Chicago has a special place in my heart. It’s one of my favourite cities, having fallen in love with it on my very first visit in September 2003, and I’ve been back so many times since. It also helps that I have many friends there, but the reason for this guide is that it’s also one of America’s great coffee cities. Indeed, one of my earliest experiences of speciality coffee (not that I knew it at the time) came on my very first trip to Chicago, when I visited the iconic Intelligentsia Coffeebar in the Monadnock Building on Jackson Boulevard in the heart of The Loop, Chicago’s downtown centre.
Although I’ve visited Chicago many times, my coffee knowledge is clustered around a few centres: The Loop and the neighbourhoods immediately to the north, where I tend to stay when visiting the city, and along Milwaukee Avenue, the great artery which runs northwest out of the centre and which seems to have more than its fair share of great coffee shops. I had intended to extend my knowledge to the neighbourhoods immediately west of The Loop on my most recent trip, but, obviously, that will have to wait for another time.
As with all these guides, this is not, and does not claim to be, a comprehensive guide to Chicago’s coffee scene, particularly since there are large parts of the city I have yet to visit.
Header image: the view from the Willis Tower in October 2011, looking north along the coast of Lake Michigan. The skyscrapers of River North and the Magnificent Mile, dominated by the John Hancock Center on the right (now 875 North Michigan Avenue), give way to the neighbourhoods of Lincoln Park and Lakeview.
Big Shoulders, Gold Coast
Big Shoulders was not a name I’d really come across until about a year ago, since when it seems to have taken off. Founded nine years ago by Tim Coonan, who I had the pleasure of briefly meeting, Big Shoulders was originally a roaster, with Tim, who had a long career as a chef, roasting coffee in his garage. This grew to a wholesale roasting business and then came the coffee shops, currently standing at five. The Gold Coast branch opened in January, directly opposite Tempo Café, one of my favourite Chicago spots. So it made sense that on my return to the city, I would head first to Tempo for breakfast, then cross the road to try out the coffee at the new kids on the block.
Big Shoulders has its house blend on espresso, with a fairly concise menu, including a cortado and two sizes of cappuccino and latte. There is a choice of two single-origins on filter, either bulk-brew (termed “fast drip” on the menu) or pour-over via the V60 (termed “slow coffee”, which I rather like). There’s the now-obligatory iced and nitro options, plus a selection of tea and a range of cakes if you’re hungry.Continue reading...
Big Shoulders, The Loop
I first came across Big Shoulders a little over a year ago, when I spotted the Gold Coast branch, directly opposite Tempo Café, one of my favourite Chicago brunch spots. Although it had been around as a roaster since 2009, it was only recently that Big Shoulders had started opening its coffee shops. At the time of writing, Big Shoulders has seven locations, including today’s Coffee Spot, on West Lake Street in the Loop. I managed to visit it during the same trip that I discovered the Gold Coast coffee shop and returned when I was back in Chicago in May this year.
Big Shoulders roasts all the coffee, with a house blend, single-origin and decaf on espresso, served from a fairly concise menu, including cortado, flat white and cappuccino/latte options (the last two available in small and large). There’s a choice of filter options, with one single-origin on batch brew (“fast drip” on the menu) and another on pour-over (termed “slow coffee”, which I rather like), prepared using a V60 on the Modbar automated pour-over system. There are also cold brew and nitro options, plus a selection of tea and a range of breakfasts sandwiches and cakes if you’re hungry.Continue reading...
Buzz Coffee Roaster & Baker
Buzz Killer Espresso was the first place I visited on my returning to Chicago as part of my around the world trip in 2016. A lovely coffee shop/roaster just off North Milwaukee Avenue, it was set back from the street and spread over two floors, a delightful spot with excellent coffee and awesome staff. I was particularly disappointed when I learnt of its closure this time last year. However, all was not lost since Buzz Killer was moving, with a slight change of name, to new premises further up Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square. Naturally on my return this year I hopped on the Blue Line and went straight there.
Buzz Coffee Roaster & Baker is very different from its predecessor in terms of look and feel. Spread over a much larger single floor, the outside seating is gone and there’s a main entrance on Milwaukee and a second entrance at the back on Diversey. The coffee offering’s very similar though, with Buzz still roasting all its own coffee. There’s a house-blend, single-origin and decaf on espresso, plus a blend and three seasonal single-origins on V60, while the bulk-brewer, that staple of the American coffee shop, is mercifully absent.Continue reading...
Café Integral, Chicago
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 is a standalone coffee shop 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.
May 2018: Café Integral now has coffee shops in three Freehand Hotels: Chicago (this one), Miami and Los Angeles, as well as a standalone coffee shop in New York. Sadly the original coffee bar in American Two Shot has closed.Continue reading...
Doughnut Vault, Canal Street
The Doughnut Vault is one of Chicago’s better kept (speciality coffee) secrets. Put onto it by my friend Phillip, it was touted as the source of the best doughnuts in Chicago, Phillip recommended the Franklin Street location, a small (almost) hole-in-the-wall operation in River North around the corner from my hotel, which Amanda and I visited during our “polar vortex” trip to Chicago. It was only while we were there that the server pointed us towards the Canal Street branch across the river.
Given the aforementioned polar vortex, we didn’t venture out much, so couldn’t get to Canal Street on that visit. However, I returned the next time I was in Chicago, first with Amanda on Monday morning and again on my own on Wednesday lunchtime. As we discovered, Canal Street is somewhat bigger, best described as a “proper coffee shop”, serving, espresso, batch-brew and, of course, the aforementioned doughnuts.
A word of warning, though: the doughnuts sell out quickly. Best be there before nine o’clock if you want to be sure of getting one!Continue reading...
Doughnut Vault, Franklin Street
This is the original Doughnut Vault that my friend Phillip recommended to Amanda and me as the source of the best doughnuts in Chicago. A small (almost) hole-in-the-wall operation in River North around the corner from my hotel, we visited during our “polar vortex” trip to Chicago. Although there is batch-brew filter coffee here for $1 a pop (takeaway only, so don’t forget to bring your own cup) we came specifically for the doughnuts, so can’t comment on the quality of the coffee.
Just like the bigger, coffee shop version of the Doughnut Vault on Canal Street, the doughnuts sell out quickly. However, unlike the Canal Vault, where the coffee shop has set hours and stays open selling coffee long after the doughnuts are gone, once the Franklin Vault sells the last doughnut, it closes. The good news, however, is that, unlike the Canal Vault, it opens at weekends, with a more civilised start time of 09:30, which is how Amanda and I managed to get up in time for the last of the doughnuts!Continue reading...
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.Continue reading...
Gaslight Coffee Roasters
One of the more famous names in Chicago’s independent coffee scene, I can’t say exactly when or where I first heard of Gaslight Coffee Roasters, but it’s a name that keeps coming up when people talk about places to visit. Like so much of Chicago’s speciality coffee, it’s on North Milwaukee Avenue between the Blue Line stops of Logan Square and California, the trains thundering close by Gaslight on the elevated section before disappearing underground at Logan Square. In terms of other speciality coffee shops, it neatly fills the gap between the cluster to the northwest (Logan Square), featuring the likes of Passion House Coffee Roasters and Intelligentsia, and the cluster to the southeast, starting with Ipsento/ Ipsento 606.
Roaster, retailer and coffee shop all-in-one, Gaslight is rare in American speciality coffee circles in that it also has a full kitchen, serving five or six seasonal dishes until three o’clock each afternoon. This is supplemented by a day-long selection of cakes and pastries. Roasting takes place three times a week in a separate room to the rear of the store. A small selection of single-origins is produced, which is rotated through espresso/batch-brew, with two single-origins on espresso and one on batch-brew.Continue reading...
Infuse Coffee & Tea Bar, River North Point
Good coffee in offices is something of a rarity, the odd exception such as Store Street Espresso in Sheldon Square notwithstanding. Therefore imagine my surprise on turning up at my office for the week and discovering, in the lobby, not a run-off-the-mill coffee bar, but a genuine multi-roaster in the shape of the Infuse Coffee & Tea Bar. Best of all? The building’s open to the public, so anyone can walk in for some great coffee.
Infuse has a blend and decaf on espresso, plus two options on bulk-brew, using different roasters from all over the country. Cold brew and iced tea are on tap, plus there’s normal tea, matcha and chai lattes and a range of food from local suppliers. Even better, if you are planning on staying for a bit, Infuse will serve your coffee in a proper cup, while the lobby has seating plus free Wifi.
January 2019: Infuse now uses Passion House Coffee Roasters on both espresso and batch-brew.Continue reading...
Intelligentsia, Millennium Park
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.Continue reading...
Intelligentsia, Jackson Boulevard
If I was still running the Where It All Began Coffee Spot Award, then the subject of 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…Continue reading...
Intelligentsia, Logan Square
Regular readers will know that I have a soft spot for Intelligentsia, the Chicago-based roaster/coffee shop chain with six locations in the city and others in Boston, New York, Austin 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.Continue reading...
Intelligentsia, Wicker Park
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.Continue reading...
Ipsento is a long-established player in Chicago’s speciality coffee scene, the coffee shop/roaster first opening its doors in 2006 in Bucktown, just off the speciality coffee corridor of Milwaukee Avenue. I discovered Ipsento three years ago, when I visited its second location, Ipsento 606, as part of my first around the world trip. Although only a few blocks from the original, it was a coffee shop too that day and, sadly, it’s taken me nearly three years to get back to Ipsento. To make up for this oversight, I visited twice when in Chicago earlier this year.
Ipsento is, in many ways, a classic American coffee shop, offering counter service from a bright front room, with additional seating in a cosy back room, plus there’s a large outdoor seating area. However, it’s anything but classic when it comes to the coffee, with the Cascade house-blend, a single-origin and decaf on espresso, plus batch brew and a separate brew bar (until 4pm) offering different single-origins on Aeropress, Kalita Wave and V60, all roasted in-house in a separate facility a couple of blocks away. If you’re hungry, there’s a range of filled breakfast croissants, lunch sandwiches and three toast options.Continue reading...
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.Continue reading...
La Colombe, Gold Coast
Regular readers will know that I have a soft spot for La Colombe, the Philadelphia-based coffee shop/roaster chain with branches in various east coast cities, California and Chicago, where I visited the Wicker Park branch on my round-the-world trip in 2016. Today’s Coffee Spot, the Gold Coast branch, is Chicago’s fifth La Colombe, having opened in February 2018.
It’s a small spot, with just enough room for the counter (which has a few bar stools at the back) and a row of four tables along the window at the front, plus, in the summer, a bench out front. The lack of size doesn’t stop it from offering pretty much the full La Colombe range though, with two options on espresso, another two on batch-brew and three on pour-over through the Silverton dripper. There’s also a range of in-house teas and draft lattes and, if you’re hungry, cakes and prepared salads.Continue reading...
La Colombe, Wicker Park
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.Continue reading...
Mojo, 200 South Wacker
Mojo, the New Zealand-based roaster/coffee shop chain, was founded in 2003 and now has 33 branches. Since 2017, it’s had a small foothold in Chicago, starting with today’s Coffee Spot, it’s first Chicagoland location, 200 South Wacker. Since then, it’s added a second branch a few blocks away on West Jackson, with another in River North on the way.
I visited Mojo last summer, at the start of my Midwest Road Trip. I pride myself on being reasonably on top of Chicago’s growing speciality coffee scene, but I must confess that I was clueless about Mojo until I walked in to see the Synesso espresso machine and Steampunk brewers. That I found it was entirely down to Tony Gebely, a fellow author, who is writing The Philosophy of Tea, a companion book for The Philosophy of Coffee, also published by the British Library.
Mojo has a house-blend on espresso for milk-based drinks and a single-origin for espressos/americanos, with another on filter and two options on batch-brew, all roasted for Mojo in the West Loop. Showing its Kiwi roots, Mojo is as much as about food as it is coffee, the extensive brunch menu available until three o’clock.Continue reading...
Passion House Coffee Roasters
Passion House Coffee Roasters has been around and roasting coffee in Chicago for the last seven years, but it’s a name that I only discovered this time last year on my previous visit to Chicago, when I had Passion House’s coffee at Infuse Coffee & Tea Bar, the coffee bar in my office building. Then, earlier this year, I found Passion House in, of all places, Spitfire Coffee in New Orleans, literally at the other end (north-south) of the country.
For most of its seven years, Passion House has made its name as a roaster, but in 2017 it opened its one and only coffee shop in Chicago right by Logan Square. Occupying the ground floor of a long, narrow, old, two storey building, it’s a lovely spot, serving the house-blend, decaf and a single-origin on espresso, plus another house-blend on bulk-brew, with two-single origins on pour-over. Unusually for America, Passion House uses the Marco Beverage Systems SP9 in conjunction with the Fellow Stagg pour-over dripper.
There are five loose-leaf teas, which can be had hot, cold or sparkling, while if you’re hungry, there are pastries, with doughnuts at the weekends, plus two quiches, one meat and one vegetarian.Continue reading...
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 Gold Coast (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!Continue reading...
Wormhole Coffee is something of a Chicago institution, certainly in the neighbourhood of Wicker Park which has been its home for six years, where it is joined by the likes of the (recently departed) Buzz Killer Espresso and relatively newcomer, La Colombe and Ipsento 606. Wormhole stands out because of its 1980s sci-fi décor, which includes plenty of Star Wars memorabilia (which I guess extends it back to the 1970s) as well as the pièce de résistance, a full-size “Back to the Future” DeLorean on a shelf at the back.
However, while some might be happy with this particular claim to fame, Wormhole does not rest on its laurels. Not just an iconic location, it also serves damn good coffee, roasted in-house by its roasting arm, Halfwit Coffee, which has been around for five years. There’s a pretty good range too, with a house-blend, single-origin and decaf on espresso, joined by a selection of single-origin filters. This includes bulk-brew, Aeropress, V60, and Chemex, plus a guest roaster, also available through the V60. The single-origins on offer change every few days, while the guest roaster changes every month or so. There’s also a range of teas, plus cake if you are hungry.Continue reading...
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