Chicago is one of the major design, coffee, and culinary cities of America, and I finally had a chance to go see it for myself this past spring. I had come specifically because I was curious about how well Intelligentsia’s Logan Square concept actually worked—a subject I wrote about in-depth here—but I did manage to squeeze in visits to a few other local heavy-weights.
I only had forty hours to spend in the city, which I admit is barely enough time to scratch the surface of the scene, but long enough to form a few first impressions. First, while Chicago is a city where good coffee has been building momentum for a quite a while, the city seems to now be in the middle of its next phase of expansion, with many of the talented coffee people who came up in the city's old-guard shops now striking out on their own and starting up new projects. Second, while the café culture and design tendencies here in Chicago clearly developed in relation to other major coffee cities, the robust Chicago scene definitely has its own distinct strengths, preferences, and aesthetic identity.
So here, now, a few months after that visit, is a whirlwind two-part tour of four Chicago cafes: Caffé Streets, Gaslight Coffee Roasters, The Wormhole Coffee, and Bow Truss Coffee Roasters. I can't claim to have a thorough understanding of the city after such a short time, and I was only able to visit each café once, so these aren't reviews per se. Take them for what they are: the interesting, often pretty details that jumped out at one hyper-caffeinated barista from New York City, who took this trip as a Sprudge staff writer, but is publishing it today as the site's Assistant Editor.
I can still hear the L rumbling as I type.
My first stop in Chicago was the design extravaganza that is Caffé Streets, a well-known multi-roaster shop in the Wicker Park neighborhood that opened in 2011. In a city rife with roasting operations, and hometown beans showing up on guest hoppers across Chicago, Caffé Streets stands out for serving all out-of-town roasters: Heart, Verve and Sightglass on my visit. Caffé Streets wound up being an excellent place to start my tour because, excepting the noteworthy roaster difference, the cafe strongly reflected many of the trends I noticed in other cafes in the city.
One big trend in I noticed in Chicago, and a sure sign of a mature scene, was an overall attention to detail in cafe designs. While I may not have had the best coffee or experience in every cafe I visited, from a physical perspective they all seemed quite well executed and fully realized.
For example, check-out that all-mesh draining work surface up above. It's a great idea that looks really sharp and functional, that also happens to be quite common in Chicago cafes, including at Intelligentsia's cafes. You're seeing these popping up more and more across the country, including a full-table version at Counter Culture's New York training center.
Chicago has some great menus, including the one at Caffé Streets (I love those little icons for each brew method). This plethora of brew-method options seems to be a fairly standard sight at the city's high-end cafes as well. While at Streets, I had a V60 of Heart's Ethiopia Chelba that was delicate, highly extracted, and aromatically focused.
Another fairly standard sight in Chicago is the menu of “fancy” drinks, often with variously catchy names. There seems to be a big market here for all manner of coffee and tangentially related concoctions, and if I had the time I would love to come back and spend a few days just exploring all the artisinal sodas and “monkey lattes” this city has to offer.
Did I mention that Caffé Streets was very design detail oriented? Because seriously, every finicky little thing was clearly deliberated on. The interplay of all the different textures in the place was particularly attention-getting, even the menu signs.
Now that I mention it, nice overhead signs were quite common at most of the cafes I visited, as were outdoor seating areas. I'd love to hear an explanation from someone on how a city with weather extremes like Chicago wound up having a bunch of really chill outdoor seating; maybe it gets torn down in the winter months? Maybe Chicagoans are actually part polar bear?
Whatever the reason for all the sidewalk seating, it's a really great thing that I dearly wish more cities' café cultures had, and the pod of sidewalk seating here was as sharp as the rest of the café experience. Caffé Streets is definitely worth a visit if you want to try some West Coast coffees, pick-up some brew-gear, or just gawk at their unique visual style. There's a reason why they're well-regarded abroad and in the city itself. It's a must-visit.
Gaslight Coffee Roasters
We profiled Gaslight Coffee Roasters in last year's Build-Outs Of Summer, so it was a real pleasure to visit the now one-year-old cafe in the up-and-coming Logan Square neighborhood and see how things are going for them. What I found was a welcoming, charming neighborhood shop, with a tastefully executed reclaimed-kitsch hunting lodge aesthetic, good coffee and a stand-out food program.
Real talk: I am pretty thoroughly obsessed with the wall-paper at Gaslight. I'm not usually into taxidermy, but the effect worked for me here since they chose to go with a cleaner look overall in the café. The “golden” goose above the bar was a particularly cute touch.
Gaslight is another example of clean and relatively simple menu-board signage. They had a number of coffee options on offer, and the barista was quite helpful in navigating me through the options. I wound up settling on the “Mordecai” from Papua New Guinea as espresso. The shot was enjoyable, though a little heavy and muddled, and the barista accurately described it as having a heavier caramelly body and a leathery red-fruit sweetness.
This pastry-case was pretty darn cute as well, and the very-thoroughly san-serif menus detailed some pretty intriguing sounding food options. Duck Benedict? Yes. Please.
Unfortunately I did not have a chance to try their food offerings, but it's nice to see a new cafe take an interesting approach to lunch fare. Then again, most anything would stand out compared to the thoroughly anemic options available in most North American specialty cafés.
Another thing that stood out to me in Chicago, especially compared to NYC, is the attention many folks here pay to their tea offerings. Intelligentsia has clearly been a long-time leader in this (now operating under their Kilogram Tea line), but most everywhere I went in Chicago had a serious selection of teas, presented in appropriate vessels. Of course there are some specialty shops that put a great deal of focus on their tea offerings–LA's G&B for example–but overall it is not yet a big focus in North America, so it was nice to see at least some attention being paid to tea programs in Chicago. I love a good cup of tea.
Gaslight's design isn't just pretty, it's also quite functional. I'm clearly a big fan of bar seating and islands, and Gaslight's bar-penninsula take on the idea presented a nice range of seating options for customers. I watched a number of regular customers hang out at the back bar on their laptops, or at one of the couple stools by the espresso machine reading a newspaper, casually chatting with the barista as he circulated around the bar.
Gaslight Coffee Roasters is still in their infancy, but it's cool to see what they've managed to put together. The café is attractive, enjoyable to spend time in, and offers a nice range of products. Definitely a place worth keeping an eye on as they mature.
Alex Bernson (@AlexBernson) is an assistant editor at Sprudge.com. In part two of this series, he visits Wormhole Coffee and Bow Truss Coffee Roasters. In the meantime, read more Alex Bernson here.