David Tamarkin and Julia Kramer
Coffee as mere caffeine conveyance? That's so 1992. In Chicago and other big cities, people's interest in their cup of joe actually tasting good started with, yes, that big green monster called Starbucks in the early '90s. But about ten years later the second wave of coffee innovation was upon us, and everybody (Intelligentsia and Metropolis, specifically) started roasting their own beans in small, carefully sourced batches. We were hooked.
Chicago is now deep in the third wave of coffee culture typified by new brewing techniques, such as the time-consuming pour-over method, that bring out nuanced flavors. Indie coffee shops that have opened in the past couple of years, from Asado to Star Lounge to DarkCloud, are so serious about their beans and brewing they border on obsessive. But the more obsessive they become about their techniques, the more obsessive we become about their coffee.
To assess the current coffee landscape, we ingested far more than the recommended daily caffeine intake and sussed out the 15 best java joints (both new and old). We also tested whether that persnickety pour-over method is feasible at home, discovered there is such a thing as great decaf and found that a good cup of coffee can be as close as your local hat maker.
15 best coffee shops | Best decaf coffee | Unusual spots to get coffee | Pour-over coffee | Coffeehouses with good food | Quirky coffeehouses | Our barista crushes | Confessions of a barista crush | Coffee stats
1. BRIDGEPORT COFFEE HOUSE
The coffee-roasting operation on the corner of Morgan and 31st Street is a point of pride for Bridgeport and a source of jealousy for almost every other neighborhood. Housed in a prototypically warm-toned, wood-heavy coffeehouse (only without the fleabag couches and drum-circle vibe), Bridgeport Coffee sets itself apart by roasting its own beans and brewing them with levels of respect usually reserved for presidents. The pour-over here is a revelation—bright and clean and smooth. The fact that the expert staff and comfortable digs make you want to spend the day in the place is just a bonus. Bridgeport; 3101 S Morgan St (773-247-9950).
The young owners of Ch'ava have taken an awkwardly shaped, whitewashed space and turned it into a coffee shop of serious distinction. It begins with the service, which is friendly and usually geeked out over the coffees of the day—a rotating menu of beans that are brewed per cup with a Clover machine. What, you thought the Clover craze was over? You're not wrong—when Starbucks bought the company that makes the exacting, temperature-controlled machines, they all but disappeared from indie shops. But Ch'ava's coffee makes a good argument as to why the machine's still relevant: It's clean and focused, with a mellow body and seamless expression of flavors ranging from fruity to earthy to bright. Chances are you'll get geeked out on it, too. Ravenswood; 4656 N Clark St (773-942-6763).
3. INTELLIGENTSIA BROADWAY COFFEEBAR
The baristas at all three Chicago locations of this now-national coffee roaster share an unflappable patience. To go to Intelligentsia these days is to watch as they circle cones of freshly ground, single-origin beans with Japanese kettles, coffee passing drip by drip through the filter, yielding individual cups of coffee whose distinctive flavor profiles are worth waiting for. That cup of coffee is best taken to go at the two other Chicago locations (both in the Loop); it's only the Lakeview shop—the original Intelligentsia, open since 1995—that's especially inviting, with plenty of natural-wood tables and a weird amount of very attractive people lingering at them. Lakeview; 3123 N Broadway (773-348-8058).
4. STAR LOUNGE COFFEE BAR
Owner Jesse Diaz and his crew take an intensely creative and open-minded approach to coffee. In the space above the shop, they create eclectic roasts from single-origin beans and blends (e.g., the Unicorn's Blood, designated "Not for the faint of heart!"), eight pounds at a time. And in their shop, they eschew trendy brewing techniques, such as cold-brewing iced coffee (Diaz says it dumbs down the flavor, so he brews the coffee hot, then lets it cool) and they tepidly approach the rapidly spreading pour-over practice (these guys swear by French press for the best expression of most coffees). Taking a seat at the long wood bar feels like settling in to your favorite dive bar, and the sometimes-spacey baristas (who are also the roasters) offer great ready-to-go urn coffee or a half-dozen types of roasts they brew via pour-over or French press. Humboldt Park; 2521 W Chicago Ave (773-384-7827).
5. ASADO COFFEE CO.
Now that most places that take coffee seriously offer a brewed-to-order option, it's strange to think back to when this inconspicuous coffee shop was the only place in town committed to serving only pour-over coffee from Japanese ceramic drippers. Kevin Ashtari, whose obsession with coffee began when he visited cutting-edge coffee shops in the Pacific Northwest, roasts his beans—usually African—in a drum roaster behind the counter daily, and rigorously trains his baristas, resulting in toasty, full-bodied cups of coffee. Seating, lighting and eating are afterthoughts here, so grab a cup of coffee and a bag of beans to go. Lakeview; 1432 W Irving Park Rd (773-661-6530).
Connected to the Hyde Park Art Center, this Cornell Avenue spot has the Center's museumlike vibe: clean lines, bright white walls and a quiet, serious atmosphere. The most remarkable thing about the design, though, is the counter that runs along the shop's big windows. Outlets have been placed at every other chair or so, creating the optimal environment for laptop users—one that offers a good view in times of writer's block. Istria's pour-over coffees (they use Intelligentsia beans and Chemex pots) are subtle and lovely, as are the baristas who pour them. Hyde Park; 5030 S Cornell Ave (773-324-9660).
7. JULIUS MEINL COFFEE HOUSE
Leaky paper cups, lids with dubious sealing properties, mass-produced stale pastries—what tomfoolery the Europeans must think of American coffee culture. Showing Chicago how it's done right: Austria-based Julius Meinl. Here, as in heaven, coffee is presented on a sleek tray, accompanied by a glass of water and a biscuit cookie. The preparation is just as lovely at the Southport location, but we've found the sunny North Center outpost to be less busy, and thus more conducive to spending an afternoon with a beautiful cup of coffee and selections from the always-impressive menu. Just one gripe: Would it kill the Meinl company to expand beyond a two-mile radius? North Center; 4363 N Lincoln Ave (773-868-1876).
8. THE WORMHOLE
The theme is time travel to the '80s, represented by a DeLorean in the window, a bizarre cast of Ronald Reagan by the register and movie posters from a cultural moment most would rather forget. In other words, this new Wicker Park coffee shop could have been awful or amazing. Fortunately, it's as passionate about coffee as about Back to the Future, as evidenced by the always strong (though sometimes still-brewing, requiring a wait) urn coffee and the clean, fragrant results of the pour-over option. Plus, how can you be skeptical of a place that serves cereal all day? Wicker Park; 1462 N Milwaukee Ave (773-661-2468).
9. BEVERLY BAKERY
This may be the most unlikely place to find coffee obsessiveness, as it's got a diner vibe (matronly service and all) and, as everybody knows, diners aren't typically havens for good joe. But 21 types of beans are roasted on the premises on a regular basis, and as many as seven of those are brewed every day. The staff, who go into detail about the beans' origins, can help you choose between those seven, but whichever brew you pick, don't expect to be knocked over by the flavor—even the darker roasts are so subtle they might be mistaken as weak. Beverly; 10528 S Western Ave (773-238-5580).
10. DARKCLOUD: URBAN COFFEE LAB
More like watching a science experiment than stopping into your neighborhood coffee shop, the process by which coffee is brewed at Andy Atkinson's new coffee shop is a marathon of measuring, weighing, pouring, stirring and timing. The truly bizarre space feels straight out of some sort of Dr. Evil futuristic lair: The large, two-room shop consists mostly of empty space, with a few black chairs and small yellow tables as accents. Coffee fiends will want to drop in to taste the supremely subtle, nuanced results of the Siphon—a two-chamber glass implement that brews coffee via heat-powered vacuum—but others might find the excessively deliberate coffee methods here a tad too precious. Lincoln Park; 2122 N Halsted St (773-857-2449).
11. COFFEE STUDIO
Miguel and Lee Corrina Cano had a major advantage when they opened this Edgewater coffeehouse: They were both trained in design, and thus could (and did) execute the kind of sunny, welcoming and yet modern space many people covet for their living rooms. A few years later, the space is still the most pleasant of any coffee joint in the city. With its progressive aesthetic, it's surprising the Coffee Studio hasn't gotten into the pour-over game—it brews via a drip machine, which results in a cup that is consistently aggressive (even a little harsh around the edges). Get used to the flavor, or pour in some milk—it's a fair trade-off for the atmosphere. Edgewater; 5628 N Clark St (773-271-7881).
12. A DE·LI·CIOUS CAFE
Is good pour-over made any worse if prepared by an unfriendly vegan? You'd think it would be. But this 21-month-old shop proves otherwise. No matter how surly the service, no matter how loud the Ani DiFranco is blasted, the pour-over coffee here remains robust yet smooth, complex but still drinkable. Vegans have the added benefit of pairing some eggless, milkless pastries to their order. The rest of us can hit up Dinkel's, a few blocks down the street. North Center; 3827 N Lincoln Ave (773-477-9840).
13. @SPOT CAFE
If this were 1992, and you were 16, this spot's "urban" unplugged vibe would leave you orgasmic. There are two things here, however, that will help purge that decade from your head: One, the fact that this shop uses coffee from Crop to Cup, a Chicago- and New York—based company that establishes strong relationships with its growers in Uganda; and two, the care with which that coffee is made. Just your everyday drip machines are used here, but the coffee (available in both medium and dark roasts) exhibits the clean, nuanced flavors of cups made using Clovers, Chemex and Clevers. River North; 901 N Larrabee St (312-244-3747).
14. ROBUST COFFEE LOUNGE
In a genre that defines "design" by the number of overstuffed couches, a Woodlawn coffee shop with an industrial aesthetic, marked by a corrugated-metal counter, is something for U of C kids to write home about. Then when you consider that this contemporary space is located in the heart of…a bunch of empty lots, you know you've found a diamond in the rough. Though the atmosphere teeters toward corporate, a spot at the four-seat counter with a cup of decent Alterra coffee and a fluffy Belgian waffle boosts the comfort level. Woodlawn; 6300 S Woodlawn Ave (773-891-4240).
15. IPSENTO COFFEE HOUSE
If you've been to one grungy, vaguely self-righteous coffeehouse, you've been to Ipsento. At least that's what we'd always thought. But the seriousness with which these guys approach their work—roasting in small batches weekly and offering a variety of roasts and brewing methods (such as pour-over and French press) that turn out lovely cups of coffee—made us reconsider. Bucktown; 2035 N Western Ave (773-904-8177).