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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