We’re excited to announce today that Alex Bernson has been named Assistant Editor at Sprudge.com. This is exciting news for us, and one need only read the article below or peruse Mr. Bernson’s byline archive to know why. Attendees at the upcoming 2013 Nordic Barista Cup in Oslo can look forward to Mr. Bernson’s scheduled presentation, and he’ll also be covering the event for Sprudge, alongside our London-based photojournalist Kate Beard.

But for now, you’ve just hopped off the Blue Line in Chicago – let’s go see a brand new Logan Square cafe, by our friends and partners at Intelligentsia Coffee.

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2013 has been a fascinating year so far for North American cafes. We’ve seen established and budding brands expand into new markets, while simultaneously making serious efforts to re-entrench in existing strongholds. It’s been a year of new coffee brewing toys, new coffee destinations, and folks throwing serious amounts of money at all of it. A year of showrooms and showboats. Things are getting real fancy out there, and one need look no further than Intelligentsia Coffee’s new Logan Square location for proof.

Intelli Logan Square is an attractive, strongly considered line in the sand for Intelli’s continued dominance in the Chicago retail market. Its pastiche of minimalist design trends, American diner sensibility and seating, cutting-edge coffee-bar performativity, and slick high-volume execution creates a retail concept that is at once cohesive, familiar, subtly innovative, and above all, functional and accessible.

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Logan Square is a cafe of deceptive lightness, of design so polished it fades into the background. This is not the cafe as domesticated third-place living room, luxury-kitsch hunting lodge, or whiz-bang coffee palace. This is the cafe as literalist between-place. In his book The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg speaks of a third-place’s “legitimacy born of visibility”, and at Logan we see the minimalist, realist impulse underlying that idea taken to an extreme.

The cafe is stark–muted, yet crisp. When I visited, dull gray sunlight poured in through the all-window facade. The windows are the first level in Logan’s visibility, and the light they let in gave the subtle white textures of the pressed tin ceiling and painted brick walls an ethereal glow. The hyper-clean lines of the all-white wood booths along the front windows lend an angular unreality to this second level of visibility, turning the booths into a sort of floating, liminal transition zone. The bar feels insulated from the outside world, yet there is a continuity with the patio of sidewalk seating, giving the cafe a permeable interface with the passing street.

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Guided on by the industrial fixtures of bare frosted bulbs running down the walls and ceilings, this over-lit transparency lets the outside fully penetrate the bright white conduit of the space. Well, at least metaphorically: the back wall is painted with a stylized, blocky map of the surrounding neighborhood. In reality, unless you need to use the bathroom or peruse the merchandise offerings, you will likely never reach that back wall. The space, and your experience of it, is dominated by the massive rectangular coffee bar.

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The bar draws you in. It fills the space with the bustling rhythm of service. It divides the experience into distinct service options, appropriate to specific clusters of social desires a customer might bring to the space.

Enter and you are greeted by the point barista pulling shots. Along the front face of the bar there sits a La Marzocco Strada EP (in a super-sexy matte white color scheme), followed by register and stackable modular pastry case stocked with goodies from Floriole Bakery. If you’re looking to take your coffee to go, and to maybe have a quick chat with your barista or other customers, one simply stands in line. Things proceed as you’d expect.

However, if you’ve come to Logan looking for a relaxing interlude, a reflective solo start to your day, or a casual chat with a few friends, you can bypass the line and go sit down at one of the 16 seats arrayed along the sides of the bar. When you sit, one of the floating baristas greets you with a menu of the rotating coffee and tea offerings and a glass of sparkling water. It’s a mode of service commonly found in other parts of the world – Melbourne, especially – but still rare here in the United States. This scarcity, combined with the execution at Intelli Logan Square, makes the entire experience pop.

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Intelligentsia Director of Communications Stephen Morissey told me that Logan draws heavily on the American diner (or “Coffee Shop”) for inspiration, and you can clearly see this in the theatre-in-the-round style of service counter and in the low stools and low counter height. The low counter gives an informal intimacy and approachability to the bar, and the low seating heightens that intimacy, while also neatly ensuring (along with the lack of outlets anywhere) that the bar is comfortable for hanging out and light laptop usage, but not sustained camp-out sessions.

If you order one of the pour over coffee offerings, a barista will prep everything on the central island and then bring the device, scale, timer and pouring kettle over so that they can setup and brew right in front of you. (Espresso beverages are prepared at a back espresso machine dedicated just to bar service.) This fluid “brew bar everywhere” approach, enabled by a clever and streamlined layout of back- and under-bar supplies, does a great job of creating an organic connection between customer and barista. It is obvious to anyone who has sat at an alcohol bar that having roaming workers who do prep in various locations directly in front of customers allows for more sustained conversation beyond the normal cursory coffee shop exchange, limited to those moments as you shuffle past a static preparation point. As obvious as it may be, Logan manages to pull off some of the best fluid bar service I’ve ever seen.

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Talking about this new service model, Mr. Morrissey claims that it requires a “new sort of barista,” one who is not only capable of working the point shots position, quarter-backing the pace and flow of customers coming into the cafe, but also capable of working the slower, more reserved bar-service role. A lot of the requirements of that role are second nature to people who have worked as servers or bartenders: how to present a menu and check, how to constantly be scanning a seating section to determine customer needs, how to unobtrusively refill waters and clear plates, and how to keep up an engaging customer interaction over the course of a much longer service interaction. However, many coffee workers do not have that sort of past experience, and the question of how to integrate those sorts of skills with a different pace, and sustained focus, is largely a new query for the US specialty coffee milieu.

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This newness was apparent in my experience sitting at the bar. My barista was warm and engaging as he greeted me with menu and water, and he provided helpful guidance in selecting a coffee based on my desire for a sweet, crisp cup. We chatted a bit about the neighborhood as he prepared a Chemex of Costa Rica Fletcha Roja, and the resulting cup, while a little bit flat, was thoroughly enjoyable with pleasantly sweet cola and lemon zest notes. He served the coffee to me, and then as he was turning away and I was settling into reading the morning news, almost as an afterthought he turned back and did the standard “serious coffee” performance of a few descriptors of the coffee’s attributes, and how the chemex highlighted them, before moving on to the next customer. To be honest I missed the first couple words; I would have been more interested in hearing and engaging on that axis while he was preparing or serving.

As he circulated to different customers, we continued chatting sporadically while I read on my phone. Later, when I wanted a refill on my water and a pastry, I had to sit staring at him for a good while as he hung out at the back of the bar, wholly focused on some prep task. The service was in no way unpleasant, and proved markedly more attentive and unobtrusive than most other coffee bars, but it was still vaguely unsettling. To be fair, Intelli Logan Square is still a new cafe, open for just a few months at the time of my visit. These finicky little details of service take much training and practice, especially when you’re attempting something so deceptively new.

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Intelligentsia has spent a lot of time experimenting with coffee retail, introducing a number of heady and often very involved concepts over the years. At Logan, it feels like they have taken all that experimentation, polished down the rough edges, and really committed themselves to creating not merely an innovative service, but an innovative and inviting space. Mr. Morrissey described it to me as “Intelligentsia’s first new neighborhood cafe”, and I think that really gets at what makes Logan special: what they’ve created is instantly recognizable, despite there not being anything else quite like it.

Logan just works. You come into a lively, engaging space, sit down at a counter, are served how you expect to be served, are offered a range of tasteful options, receive a well-crafted product, and then can get down to the actual business of going to a cafe: enjoying your time, socially or singly, in any of the myriad indeterminate, informal ways that a true cafe offers.

Which isn’t to say that the products on offer at Logan Square aren’t worth a trip themselves. While I was there the single-origin espresso offering was the Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, which, paired with their special 5.5% fat Kilgus Farmstead milk, made an excellent cappuccino that was like blueberries and cream in a cup. They recently added coffee milkshakes to the menu, and toast service with “local seasonal preserves” is on the way.

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These are the trends, people. Toast and milkshakesNo over-head menu. Intimate service. Service setups that let you more organically talk to and connect with customers. People have been talking about (and doing!) many of these things piecemeal for years, but experience, funding and confidence are finally leading people to put them at the center of their cafe concepts.

The fourth wave (or fifth wave, or 3.5 wave, the who-the-hell-cares wave) is happening. Fresh juice, Modbar and Alphadominche in the Mitten. Poly-roaster hipster-heritage maximalism in Nashville. Doubling-down on artisanal bonhomie in Greenwich Village. Molecular-gastronomy realness in Costa Mesa, CA. It’s a brave new world out there. But what is all this innovation in service of?

At least in the case of the bright, clean, diner/high-end coffee bar Intelligentsia has made in Logan Square, it’s all in service of creating a real place. A place so airy in its polish that the service apparatus fades to immateriality, instead of looming heavily at all times like in so many other high-concept retail ventures. A room to linger in among the bustle. The kind of place you imagine a very tasteful shot of in Food + Wine, the crisp counters and brick in sharp relief, a tattooed father and child starting their morning, with the attentive ghost of a skilled barista hanging in the motion blur behind them. A true cafe.

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Alex Bernson (@AlexBernson) is an assistant editor at Sprudge.com. Read more Alex Bernson here. 

All photos by Joe Lieske. Check out more of his work at www.joelieske.com and don’t miss his beautiful photo book of his travels from Orange County to Portland, OR, stopping at many great cafes along the way.

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