Bespoke dining. Onsite garden. Tonka beans. “Midwestern Omakase”. A LEED-certified mixed-use warehouse. Aioli of the day. Illinois farro. Bees. Chicago's enigmatic, ambitious, and approachable Arbor truly has it all—that, and a coffee program.
Well-considered, meticulous coffee service is unexpected in fine dining, but it's safe to expect the unexpected here at Arbor, a dizzyingly multifaceted restaurant project that's been gracefully daring to push dining limits for the past nine months. The restaurant has received both critical acclaim and a loyal, local following—it's integrated within the blocky surprise that is Chicago's Green Exchange, a sustainable, mixed-use office concept on Diversey Avenue in Logan Square. More than 1400 people work inside the Green Exchange, and Arbor meets these and other people's daily coffee needs, as well as their heretofore unspoken desires for onsite-foraged foods and individually tailored dinner menus.
Unless you work in the Green Exchange, Arbor's strictly the kind of place you go on purpose. And as I pull up to the building in a light, late-January snow, I can see why. The landmarked 1913 building, once a long underwear factory and most recently home to “FREDERICK COOPER LAMPS OF ELEGANCE”, is hardly the kind of place you'd just wander inside. But beyond the edifice, it scans more like an art gallery than an office building, with Arbor's glass-walled, second-story space assuming the role of open, central meeting point.
Seating is, like everything at Arbor, a pleasing mish-mash of options: heather-grey cushioned booth-pods appear to float in the corners, joined by two large wooden communal tables, a bar, a smattering of two-tops—even a vintage delivery tricycle that you could probably sit at if you wanted to. At the coffee counter, a wood-paneled La Marzocco Linea Classic sits beside both a daily chalkboard announcing coffee offerings and a more cryptic lucite grid that describes flavor notes, available filter coffee preparations, and a couple of current special coffee concoctions. For a restaurant so carefully constructed from aesthetic to menu, the energy's still surprisingly down-to-earth, casual.
I sat down with co-owner Chad Little, a coffee veteran, to talk about how he, along with co-owner Leonard Hollander, came to build a restaurant space that somehow manages to be great at everything all at once, but particularly great at coffee.
“A lot of people have no interest in specialty coffee, but they have an interest in flavor,” Little told me as he spontaneously set up an informal blind tasting of three of the restaurant's current single-origin offerings from local roaster Metric. Little saw this shortcoming as a real opportunity to educate within the fine dining sphere. “They're going to drop $200-300 on dinner at Alinea, but don't really give a shit about coffee. So you really sneak it in there.”
Little met Hollander (“You could say he functions as a chef, but we share a lot of responsibilities,” says Little) while the former was working at Ipsento, a specialty roastery and cafe in Bucktown, where Hollander, a chef who'd worked at Norman's in LA, was a customer.
“People are more interested in singularly focused places,” Little said of the restaurant landscape in Chicago. “We basically wanted to build a place we would go to and just hang out.”
And broaden the focus they did. Arbor is open from 6:30am weekdays, extending as late as 9:30pm on Thursdays and Fridays for dinner service. Coffee and breakfast start the morning service, which makes way for a mid-day menu, and the evening is set aside for Midwestern omakase—arranged strictly via text and email messages with the owners, who craft unique, tailored menus for each party based on just, well, talking to you about what you like. Ingredients are sourced from as near as the Green Exchange's own private gardens to illicit South American shrubberies and beyond. There is a full bar.
“It's super weird, you're in a building in Logan Square, in proximity to a bunch of great restaurants, public transit, and there's a huge growing space out back and on the rooftop—there's an acre of growing space,” said Little. “We figured we could grow stuff out there, we could do a concept where we meet the food and beverage needs of people in the building, but also do something for people coming from outside,” he continued. Their big challenge, he felt, was the day-to-night transition in customers' minds—he gives a nod to Seattle's cafe-food-and-wine-bar Vif as an example of a place doing it right. “Everything has to change,” explains Little. “The big core element with Arbor is how do you break that subconscious idea with someone who comes in in the morning and thinking ‘I want to come back in the evening',” he continues. “Design has to influence the person's subconscious to evoke this emotion of the potential of something else.”
Before the restaurant opened, Little says, the duo first got to know the building's neighbors via a coffee cart.
“We did a pop-up where we basically designed this whole mobile cart that was basically insane, but we couldn't tell anyone about it because it was highly illegal,” says Little, citing as influences the early days of San Francisco roasters Sightglass and Four Barrel (the latter of which also provides beans to Arbor.) Little says the cart had “no water supply” and “electrical we had to pull through the floor and connect to a panel—basically a 100-amp cafe that we had to tear down every Friday and it had to look legit.”
From there, Arbor sprung fully into action (with real plumbing and electricity) late last summer. The coffee menu includes espresso (always served, Little tells me, alongside house-essenced sparkling water from things like Arbor's roof-grown sweet mace), batch brew, and slow bar options, and a series of uniquely flavored lattes.
“People are going to drink flavored lattes, that's what Starbucks created,” said Little. “We call them ‘project beverages', you make them like ice cream or whatever it is, and you just try to build. Like a caramel latte, why does someone like that?” posits Little as he starts a characteristic tangent. “Is it Maillard reaction? Just fat and sugar? So we try to break that down.”
“If you have the knowledge base and the technique, you can do anything, that's the huge advantage of having the kitchen,” he continues. Working with housemade ingredients like Brittany caramel combined with, say, sassafras, Arbor's project beverages are created to “still [meet] that subconscious desire that the person has.”
Other past project beverages have included ingredients like cold-fermented blackcurrants prepared along with fruity Colombian chocolate and an Ethiopian Bulga espresso from Four Barrel, which together “almost had the flavors of a natural-processed coffee but not acetic-acid driven,” Little told me. Another favorite offering is an African-coffee based drink incorporating spiceberries, Appalachian allspice, grains of paradise, star anise, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, jaggery, and cardamom, steeped in coconut milk and cocoa butter, topped with shaved lime zest, and served cold, which Little describes as “toned-down and tasty.” You know. Just something simple to sip on.
“Someone in coffee would say oh, it's like signature beverages,” Little acknowledges. “But it's less than that and more like cooking, pleasing people, and doing something solid.”
And for Little and Hollander, this is what Arbor attempts to bring it all back to. Through all of it, the maybe-precious-sounding essences of housegrown-herbs and the 20 different dinner menus for 20 different tables and the everything being named a project—all of it. The through line is Little and Hollander's idea of bringing joy and excitement forward through their outrageous ambition.
“In the summer, I'll just invite people out to the garden to taste stuff,” Little tells me as we wind down our interview, before he runs to the kitchen to package up a newly created coffee-butter spread for me to try. “It's like when you go into a restaurant or a cafe, there's a certain barrier where the guests are paying and you get to know them and they kind of feel a part of it, and if you can break that down sooner than later, you start developing a really interesting culture. One way to do that is playfulness in food, and a certain approach to customer service, and bringing them into different environments,” he says.
“So that's what we try to do with coffee in general. It doesn't come from a place like, ‘I need to make something to serve next to a coffee.' We work on a project for developing a flavor, and it might be pâtes de fruits, or little caramels, or candies, or citrus wines, or adult Sour Patch Kids.” A sparkle became visible in Chad Little's eye despite the shadows cast by his ball cap.
“And if you just kinda give people stuff,” he concluded, “they get super excited.”
Liz Clayton is the associate editor at Sprudge.com, based in Brooklyn. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.