Chicago – Espresso Destinations 2014

Chicagoland is the area of my roots, and being so, has provided opportunity to visit fairly often.  It seems not too long ago that the effort required to find a fine espresso was a tribulation, and taking a cycle ride across town was a perilous endeavor.  As much as time has passed and faces have changed, Sandberg’s poem, Chicago, seems in many ways as relevant today as it was when originally published a century ago in 1914 by Poetry Magazine.  Under the waves of present day violence and political grift and graft, the “City of Big Shoulders” can be seen with “lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning”. New investments into urban space such as Maggie Daley Park and in multi-modal infrastructure bears proof that the pulse and heart of the people can be felt.  The growth of urban bicycling and abundance of fine espresso houses are part of the “stormy, husky, brawling” laughter raising Chicago above the fray.  The implementation of cycling infrastructure is impressive, and by witness of our non-scientific survey, it is robustly used.  The Divvy bike share program has taken off with flourishing success;  Kudos to Chicago for leading the way!  The number of coffee houses to visit has grown handsomely with a variety of gems to choose from.

4000 fattened fossil fuel miles of flying to and from Seattle and Chicago burdened my eco-footprint.  To lighten the trip, planes, trains, car-shares, and bikes, were relied upon to traverse the country to “The Region” or “Da Region”; the affectionate Hoosier moniker for Northwest Indiana.  With not a cubic micron to spare, our  Chrome Industries backpack was precisely loaded to outfit the trip to allow seamless transition from one mode of transportation to the next. The multimodal relay went like this:  Brief walk to a  Car2Go, transition to the Link Light Rail, ride to SeaTac, fly to O’Hare, hop the “L” Blueline, ride a Divvy Bike, and finally roll on the South Shore Line to the Gary Metro Center.  From there my wonderful parents chauffeured me to their home.

Repeating this trip a number of times over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to explore and highlight some Chicagoland espresso destinations. Dock your Divvy to read the run down of cafe recommendations.

Heritage Bicycles General Store – 2959 N. Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL

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How could we not like Heritage General Store, a mashup of bikes and coffee! Nestled in Lincoln Park, they evoke the feeling of a neighborhood corner store. Enjoy a properly served espresso, warm yourself within the bright day-lit interior, and view the working bike shop in action.  They are builders of fine urban cycles that exude class and tradition.

  • Espresso:  ⨷ ⨷ ⨷ ⨷   ~


Caffe Streets – 1750 W. Division, Chicago, IL

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One word for Caffe Streets, style!, well worth the stop just to experience the interior. Pretend you are an architect and check out the custom ceiling.  The cobra head street lights define the espresso bar and definitely light the way to a well cared for and properly served espresso.  There is plenty of cycle parking outside and a sidewalk seating corral to enjoy your beverage al fresco.  Caffe Streets is located on the south boundary of Wicker Park, the seemingly center of mass of Chicago’s coffee houses.

  • Espresso:  ⨷ ⨷ ⨷ ⨷ ⨷  ~

Bowtruss Coffee Roasters – 2934 N Broadway, Chicago, IL

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Bowtruss’ original roasting facility that caters to the local shops and restaurants is just a few blocks walk from a Divvy bike station.   Enjoy the aromas of the roast while partaking in a beverage at the modestly sized front of house coffee bar.   They small batch roast and serve a properly crafted espresso.  I enjoyed the espresso so much that I bought a bag of beans to go, even though I had no room to spare in the backpack.  Fortunately, I could take advantage of the Divvy bike cargo rack and enjoyed a ride on the Lakefront Trail leading into downtown with Big John beckoning the way .

  • Espresso:  ⨷ ⨷ ⨷ ⨷ ⨷  ~

Dark Matter Coffee – Osmium Coffee Bar 1117 W Belmont Ave., Chicago, IL

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Os, atomic number 76, has an other worldly bluish iridescent glow to its decor.  Located on Belmont, in the heart of the Lake View neighborhood, Osmium is one of three Dark Matter identities. Os is focused on espresso and finely crafted coffee beverages that are not dependent on milk and sweeteners but the natural flavor characteristic of the roasts. “In a world driven by technology and science, we are the gravitational resistance rooted in skill and philosophy…” is the lead sentence of Dark Matter Coffee’s manifesto.  A noble cause that we can lift an espresso to.  The friendly barista pulled a fine espresso with bountiful crema.   He also engaged in some good conversation.  Unfortunately time was short and I had to beat feet to the next Divvy bike, otherwise I would have lingered a bit longer.

  • Espresso:  ⨷ ⨷ ⨷   ~

The Wormhole Coffee – 1462 N MilwaukeeAve. Chicago, IL

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Fill your flux capacitor at The Wormhole Coffee. The unique decor absolutely takes one back to the future.  1980’s era sci-fi memorabilia is the theme and rings back future memories. Keep your eyes open for the the storefront, it maintains a low profile; probably to not attract too much space trash. The complimentary bowl of Lucky Charms hit the spot and provided just enough fuel to power a ride into downtown on N. Milwuakee Ave..  The staff was very friendly and engaging, and we look forward to a return trip.

  • Espresso:  ⨷ ⨷ ⨷   ~

Espressamente illy – 455 N Cityfront Plaza Dr, Chicago, IL

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Molto sexy! Espressamente is one of illy’s finely appointed Italian coffee bars.  After arriving on the red-eye, I made my way through the dawning hours of the Chicago streets to Espressamente, who who thankfully opens at 6:00 AM to cater to those in need. Polished and glossy, it is a gem set perfectly at the base of the NBC Tower.  Order and enjoy your espresso at the bar in Italian style.

  • Espresso:  ⨷ ⨷ ⨷ ⨷   ~

Intelligentsia Coffee – Chicago

Intelligentsia Coffee, founded in Chicago, can also be found in NYC and Los Angeles.

1871 Coffee Bar – 222 W Merchandise Mart Plaza Suite 1212

The 1871 location will have to be filed in the archives, it has recently closed operations.  Back in 2012 it was our first IC connection

Monadnock Coffee Bar – 53 W Jackson Blvd.

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Located at the base of the Monadnock Building, a bastion of architectural prowess, Intelligenstia is well grounded within the massive load bearing brick facade.  The interior is a throwback to a traditional Italian espresso bar with marble topped tables complementing the original tiled floors.  The traditional styling pays appropriate homage to its setting.  Bustling with caffeinated Chicagoans, one could feel the heart of the city’s business pulse in motion.

Espresso:  ⨷ ⨷ ⨷ ⨷   ~

Millennium Park Coffee Bar – 53 East Randolph Street

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Conveniently located off the northwest corner Millennium Park, the terminus of the South Shore Line, Intelligentsia’s Millennium Park edition is simply and elegantly styled.  Amidst the busy morning caffeine rush hour, appropriate craft and exceptional service tended to the ethos of the espresso experience.  The barista chatted it up a little and liked the fact that I was living the dream and cycling in some rough weather.  Following the espresso, a Divvy bike was pulled at the Daley Center plaza, tribute was paid to the Picasso and then the Marina City Towers, I then made haste northwest via the abounding cycling infrastructure supported by Chicago.

  • Espresso:  ⨷ ⨷ ⨷ ⨷ ⨷  ~

La Colombe – 1552 N Damen Ave.

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La Colombe was founded in Philly by two partners who met in Seattle.  They developed “culinary coffee”; inspired by the techniques of European roasters and an evolving fine american cuisine.  Located  below the Damen ‘L’ stop, La Colombe is set within a gritty Chicago urban texture.   Plenty of cycle parking is in the area to serve the multi-modal commuters and urban riders.  A delicious espresso with a bountiful crema was enjoyed.  The self serve soda water station is a nice touch so make sure to take care of yourself.

  • Espresso:  ⨷ ⨷ ⨷ ⨷   ~

Uptown Cafe – 1400 E. Lincoln Way, Valparaiso IN

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If you need to get to northwest Indiana from Chicago, take the South Shore Line, an interurban commuter rail that connects from the Millennium Park station to South Bend Indiana.  The peaceful rail trip from Millennium Park to the Gary Metro Center takes just under an hour for a meager $6.00 cost.

You might tell yourself that NW Indiana is not known for its specialty coffee houses and you would be right.  Presently, the exception is Uptown Cafe, which  is an espresso oasis for “The Region”.  It is strategically located across the street from the world renowned comics, gaming, and graphic novel shop, Galactic Greg’s, run by Greg Karras, author of the graphic novel, CLASH.  Uptown is also situated at the edge of Valparaiso University.  It is well appointed with a modern and stylish cafe bar and serves a fine espresso in a fancy Bodum double glass insulated demitasse.  I had the good fortune to share an espresso and conversation with Galactic Greg who was donning a smashing custom Captain America leather jacket.

  • Espresso:  ⨷ ⨷ ⨷ ⨷   ~


*Paradoxical footnote: All the cafes we spend time to write about we recommend as destinations.  We provide the honest feedback and rating of the espresso experience because we are interested to help cultivate the best success for future visits.  Even though we may give the espresso experience a one wheel rating we can still love and recommend a visit to the cafe because of the overall character of place, amongst other qualities.

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Itelligentsia Coffee – 1871 Coffeebar

Itelligentsia Coffee1871 Coffeebar

222 W Merchandise Mart Plaza Suite 1212, Chicago 60654 – Four out of five wheels rating

This is Part II of The Cycle Cafe’s recent visit to Chicago.  Our intel report this time was sourced from a past colleague who recently relocated from Seattle to Chicago.   His tip led us to Intelligentsia Coffee which was said to give hope for coffee snobs visiting Chicago from Seattle.

Intelligentsia Coffee was started in 1995 in Chicago by two migrants from San Francisco who wanted to bring fresh roast coffee to their cafe and to Chicago. Intelligentsia has a good social ethic that supports “Direct Trade” practices. The business seems to be flourishing as they now have three California locations: Los Angeles, Pasadena,Venice; four in Chicago and training labs in New York City and Atlanta.

Chicago’s four spots include the original location at 3123 North Broadway, Millennium Park, the Monadnock Building and the 1871 bar on the twelfth floor of the Merchandise Mart.  Visiting all of the cafes  was not possible for us and we only had time for one. We chose the 1871 coffee bar housed inside of the mammoth Merchandise Mart, a hub for the design and furnishing world, plus much more.  We used the west entrance off North Orleans St. for direct access to the elevators to reach the twelfth floor.

Interior view through to the 1871 side

This Intelligentsia Coffee location is partnered with 1871 “a co-working center for digital start-ups”.  The partnership is setup to help fuel innovation in action.  The interior of the coffee bar was designed by Gensler a leading architecture and design firm.  It has a spartan aesthetic with exposed conduits, ductwork and painted building structure.  Quirky light fixtures with a mashup of exposed lamps fit right in, however, they created a harsh overhead lightscape that is heavy on the head and reflects starkly off the stainless steel surfaces in the space.  The bounding walls are composed of steel studs visible through a metal mesh skin.  An exposed brick back wall supporting a continuous stand up bar within the seating area adds a complimenting texture and a human scale to the space.

Barista and metal mesh wall

The lone barista, busy cleaning what appeared to be a coffee pot at the sink, took no notice of us as we entered the cafe and stood at the coffee bar for what seemed like a modern digital era eternity.  As we waited, we were entertained by the lone pastry remaining in the adjacent display case.  It stared at us longingly, with hopes of being consumed, for it was nearing closing time and it was soon to be fated to a cellophane wrap and the day old pastry platter.  We began to question if they were still open and decided to call out to the barista who was now tuning the iPod for closing ceremonies.  Startled into action he eagerly ran over to help us.  He showed delight at our request for a straight espresso and we were given a choice of two different blends to select from, one being a seasonal.  This was a satisfying touch.  We selected the Black Cat blend, the standard of Intelligentsia.  We appreciated his phrasing of a question asking, “if we will be sitting with our espresso?”  This gracefully addressed the issue and tragic idea of an espresso being served in a paper to go cup.  He was pleased with our answer and to our delight immediately served us a seltzer water then set about his work with noticeable care and concentration.  The espresso was served in a lovely cup with saucer that was graced by a delicate spoon with a particularly nice line.    The crema had a delicious reddish brown color and was promisingly consistent across the surface.  The aroma was light and the crema was just a touch on the thin side.  While not particularly robust, we found the flavor to be appealing, it finished smoothly with a sweetness that developed into a delayed lingering finish.

The Black Cat Espresso

Intelligentsia Coffee, your 1871 coffee bar was enjoyable and the attention to design elements was appreciated.  The barista’s interest in creating an espresso experience was well done.  We give you a 4 out of 5 wheels rating.   You received high marks for the experience and for the espresso being served unprompted with a seltzer.  We enjoyed the flavor of the espresso and wanted more aroma as well as a richer and thicker crema.  We look forward to a future opportunity to visit your other locations and to try a seasonal espresso blend.

Our insider recommendations paid off for our visit to Chicago and allowed us to find two worthy sources of an espresso experience at: Intelligentsia Coffee and our part I review Bar Toma.

To read other espresso reviews click the Home link.

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Bar Toma

Bar Toma – 110 E. Pearson St., Chicago, IL – Five out of five wheels rating

Chicago is a wonderful city that is urban to the core.  Swelling with life, art, architecture and history, the city was a welcome respite for The Cycle Cafe. However, we had concern from hearing reports that the Chicago espresso culture is lacking and finding a bona fide espresso experience will not be easy.  Our last visit to the mid-west provided disappointing results.  Our stay in Chicago was short so we tapped into our resources prior to the visit to seek out the most promising espresso in the Loop.

Bar Toma was recommended by a good friend who works in the city and is a Chicagoland native with keen insight to the dining and entertainment culture of Chicago.   It is the casual italian dining creation of chef Tony Mantuano; who is highly regarded for his culinary expertise and his fine dining establishment, Spiaggia, the only four star Italian restaurant in Chicago.  The flavors from beginning to end pleasantly lit up our palettes. The menu is filled with a host of small plate gastronomic delights to compliment 20 wood fired pizza creations.  Our meal ended with a selection of gelato that arrived, unexpectedly and to our pleasure, compliments of the house.  It was decidedly decadently delicious.

Bar Toma

As much as we enjoyed dining, our interest still lay with the quality of the espresso experience to be found in Chicago.  We asked how early they were open because we had limited time the next day and wanted to come back for an espresso.  The waitress introduced us to the key barista and manager, Steven Paluck, who offered to open the doors a touch early to serve us an espresso.  We decided upon a time and he gave us his card and told us to call him if our plans needed to change. Considering that our visits and reviews are conducted anonymously, the quality of service and personal attention was especially appreciated, but the question was still out if they could deliver a proper espresso experience?

Public Bike Rear Cog

The next morning we saddled up on a “Public” brand three speed city bike provided complimentary to guests staying at the fabulous James Hotel, which is just five blocks south of Bar Toma.  We did a quick cruise to the lake front at Navy Pier then headed north along the shore to Oak St. Beach and then made our way to Bar Toma.   The orange “Public” provided a very cushy ride and a great way to experience the lake front and Chicago.


We arrived at the agreed upon time and entered the doors; the staff was making preparations for the day.  The barista who was prepping the espresso bar was wearing a cycling cap, which we appreciated.  We asked to order an espresso and he apologized that they were not open yet and that he did not have everything ready to go.  Concerned that our opportunity would be lost, we mentioned that Steven had offered last night to serve us an espresso prior to opening.  The hostess let Steven know that we were there and he came out to greet us with a welcome smile, a hand shake and an appreciation that we were able to make the visit.  It was evident that Steven is truly passionate about his art of making espresso and this translated directly into a great espresso experience.

Setting the grinds

He set upon the task with concentration and an admirable attention to detail.  Just prior to the shot initiating from the machine the coffee aroma peaked our anticipation with rich full coffee essence.  Saucers were set out in the ready.  The cups floated from the machine to us.  The crema was thick, consistent, and a lovely brown with wisps of red.  The espresso was smooth and velvety as it flowed across the tongue providing a rich coffee flavor and lasting sweet finish. We liked it so much that we had to have another just to make sure.

The Espresso

Bar Toma serves illy coffee and is an illy espresso bar.  We admired the sleek design of the espresso machine.  It was a special collaborative product designed by illy with the help of Italian architect Luca Trazzi.  Steven took the time to educate us about illy coffee and the care and method illy takes to preserve the freshness and quality of the beans.  He also shared the following information about a traditional method of enjoying an espresso:

Crema – The importance of crema in espresso is that it awakens your pallet.  The flavor is light and bitter with soft leather notes and hints of chocolate and caramel. As the crema dissolves on your tongue, the oils will coat your mouth and tongue.  You will feel a slight tingling sensation on your tongue, which will reappear in different forms with every sip.

Coffee Liquor – Considered the purest form of coffee, the espresso liquor is a rich and vibrant liquid that has depths of flavor with every sip.  Traditionally, espresso is meant to be drunk in four sips. The first sip is the introduction of the crema which provides a sharp bitterness that leaves your tongue tingling with a very pleasant warmth on your lips. The second is your introduction to the coffee liquor, which will be rich, robust, bitter, and have a strong tobacco and leather quality; very similar to drinking coffee with the grinds still in it like Cowboy Coffee.  The third sip will be full of chocolate and caramel flavors and have a lot less bitter; fine floral notes will be achieved and linger till your final sip.  The fourth and final sip will have a sweet and delightfully pleasant finish much like candy but with a richness that lasts for a long time.

Bar Toma, we give you five out of five wheels rating for a great espresso experience.  The Cycle Cafe recommends that you give them a visit to experience a proper espresso.   Bar Toma gives the wanting espresso culture of Chicago hope for the future.  Our only recommendation is to offer a bit of seltzer with the espresso and all will be primo!  We look forward to our next opportunity to enjoy an espresso at Bar Toma.

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Espresso being crafted. Notice the gelato case at the left.








Bar Toma exterior with outdoor patio seating in background of the Public bike.

Menu – click this link to see the menu

















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