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21 May 2019

Nine Speciality Coffee Shops To Try in Chicago


I've wanted to visit Chicago for many years but I held out, hoping that an opportunity to go on business might come up. Sadly, it didn't, but I did take advantage of the BA Christmas sale to book a long weekend trip from which I returned last week. With only four days in the Windy City and plenty of sight-seeing and dining to do too, I was only able to do a whistle-stop tour of Chicago's excellent speciality coffee scene. I didn't do too badly, though, and visited nine different coffee shops during my trip. As usual, my very favourites are indicated in purple in the map and with asterisks below.



Big Shoulders Coffee (The Loop)
I was staying near the verdant, public-art-filled Millennium Park in The Loop, and was pleased to find a branch of this Chicago roastery in close proximity to my hotel. I headed straight there on my first afternoon, in serious need of coffee after a long day of travelling. The small coffee bar features seating along the long counter as well as a few more seats near the front windows, underneath a cool mural of rowers making their way along the Chicago River.

At the back, there's a brew bar and a vibrant orange espresso machine perched on the counter. Although tempted by the pourover menu, I instead opted for an espresso. The single-origin natural Ethiopian Sidamo coffee, with its bright, blueberry notes, was just what I needed to fend off the jet lag. The baristas were welcoming and knowledgeable and Big Shoulders was a great first introduction to the Chicago coffee scene.


Big Shoulders is located at 213 W. Lake St (and five other locations). Website. Twitter. Instagram.


Café Integral (River North)
Café Integral in Nolita is one of my favourite New York coffee bars so I was excited to visit Café Integral's Chicago home inside the hip Freehand Hotel. Somehow, despite it not being just across the river from my hotel, in River North — or perhaps because of this — I only ended up visiting on my last afternoon in the city. Unfortunately, they were closing a couple of hours early for an event, which meant I couldn't have my pourover served in one of their beautiful ceramic cups. But the Nicaraguan Los Jilgueros coffee was very nicely brewed and I enjoyed sipping it in the very stylish hotel lobby. Just like at Big Shoulders, Cafe Integral's coffee bar features lovely tiling and a colourful mural.


Café Integral is located inside the Freehand Hotel at 19 E. Ohio St. Website. Twitter. Instagram.


Dark Matter Coffee — The Mothership (Ukrainian Village)
Dark Matter Coffee roasts next door to its quirky, colourful coffee bar in the Ukrainian Village. Although you can drink in, it's standing room only and most people were ordering coffee to go when I visited. I ordered a cortado, which was made with Dark Matter's signature Unicorn Blood espresso blend. If you don't fancy a traditional espresso-based drink. there are some more creative options on the drinks menu, as well as plenty of bags of freshly roasted retail beans for sale.

If you're short on time and not already planning to visit this part of town, Dark Matter's Meddle Coffee Bar (featured below) provides a much more central venue and more easily accessible venue for sampling this roaster's coffee.


Dark Matter Coffee is located at 738 N. Western Ave (and other locations). Website. Twitter. Instagram.


Gaslight Coffee Roasters (Logan Square)
With its exposed-brick walls and pentagonal, wooden coffee bar at its centre, Gaslight Coffee Roasters is a cosy, arty spot for speciality coffee in Logan Square. They serve their own coffee, and during my visit, there was a Colombian Narino coffee available as a filter coffee, as well as two single-origins on espresso. The barista recommended that I go for the Burundi coffee from Kiryama washing station in my cortado. The coffee was sweet, smooth and well-balanced — just what I needed at the end of a long day of exploring the Ukrainian Village and Logan Square, before jumping back on a Blue Line train to The Loop.


Gaslight Coffee Roasters is located at 2385 N. Milwaukee Ave. Website. Instagram.


Intelligentsia Coffee, Millennium Park (The Loop)
Before I started researching for this trip, Intelligentsia was one of the few Chicago speciality coffee companies on my radar. I've visited two of their coffee bars in New York: the now-closed location in Urban Outfitters, Herald Square, and their gorgeous cafe in the lobby of the High Line Hotel. I've enjoyed their beans on many other occasions too.

Conveniently, Intelligentsia's Millennium Park coffee bar (one of six in Chicago) was a short walk from my hotel and I visited twice, both times at the end of my morning jogs along the Lakefront Trail. The café is large and bright with various pieces of modern art on the walls — tying in with the plentiful public artworks in Millennium Park and the surrounding area. There are a few stools next to the brew bar, as well as tall, sharing tables and smaller tables closer to the revolving doors. Although it was quiet on Saturday morning, the queue was almost out of the door when I returned on Monday.


As I was pressed for time on both visits, I stuck to the espresso menu, ordering a cortado with the Black Cat espresso on the first time and opting for a macchiato with the Illumination blend on the second. Both coffees were very well brewed, but I think the bright citrus notes of the Illumination espresso worked particularly well in the smaller drink. I also sampled some of the light bites on offer: a pistachio doughnut, and a chilli cheese scone, both of which were very good.

Intelligentsia is located at 53 E. Randolph St (and five other locations). Website. Twitter. Instagram.


Meddle Coffee Bar (West Loop)
I wasn't yet sure that I'd manage to fit Dark Matter's Mothership cafe into my schedule, so to make sure I had the chance to try their coffee, I stopped by their colourful Meddle Coffee Bar, near Union Station, on my way to brunch one morning. With its purple-accented, psychedelic décor — I particularly love the purple La Marzocco and accompanying black cat — Meddle was the quirkiest coffee bar I visited during my trip.


After ordering a cortado, made with their Union Blood espresso blend, I was delighted to find that it was served in a gorgeous glass purple goblet. This is one of the most creative cortado presentations I've ever seen and it's nice to seeing those of us who prefer smaller espresso-based drinks getting the best drinking vessels. The coffee was also immaculately brewed and tasted great — one of the best cortados I had on this trip.


Meddle Coffee Bar is located at 601 W. Jackson Blvd (and other Dark Matter locations). Website. Twitter. Instagram.


Metric Coffee (West Loop)
Metric Coffee was one of the independent coffee roasters I was most keen to visit but its (now extendedopening hours didn't fit too well with the timing of my visit, especially as it's a little way out of the city centre — west of the West Loop, really. In the end, I squeezed in a visit between my architecture boat tour and my West Loop brunch on Saturday morning. I was glad I made the effort!


The tiny, industrial-style coffee bar, next door to the roastery, is very small with only a handful of seats. It reminded me of my own local favourite Monmonth Coffee, in Bermondsey. I spent a while choosing some beans to buy, but when I found out that the Peruvian coffee I ordered was also available as a pourover, I decided to buy some different Peruvian beans, so that I could try two different coffees. I enjoyed the Jhonny Vidurrizaga coffee in the cafe; it had juicy pineapple flavour notes and was a delight to drink. At home, I've been brewing the David Flores beans through my V60, and this coffee tastes a little sweeter with almond and mango flavours coming through nicely. I really like the packaging of the beans too; the sides feature icons representing classic Chicago highlights, from hot dogs to Route 66.


Metric Coffee is located at 2021 W. Fulton St. Website. Twitter. Instagram.


* Passion House Coffee Roasters (Logan Square)
Six mile northwest of the city centre, the leafy Logan Square neighbourhood is only a 15-minute L train ride away from The Loop. I visited on a Sunday, which meant I got to explore the busy farmers' market. Afterwards, it was coffee time, and I made a beeline for the Logan Square cafe of Passion House, a Chicago-based coffee roaster. There is a strong focus on design, with the cyan-, magenta- and yellow-coloured cube of the logo repeating in its key (black) form on the gorgeous, curving coffee bar, among other places.


The coffee was great too. I selected the 'Box of Rain' coffee from Huila, Colombia, which was available as a pourover on the brew bar. They categorise these beans as 'mainstream'; ambient and experimental are also available. And if you find standard flavour note descriptions a little run of the mill, Passion House write theirs in verse form (rhyming box of rain with honey graham, and juicy white peach with pluot if you reach). This attention to detail and creativity is very appealing, and as much care was put into the brewing and the serving (in a double-walled glass). Mid-afternoon on a Sunday and the coffee bar was bustling, with many of the smaller and communal tables occuipied, but I still received a very warm welcome. My only regret is not buying some of the Papua New Guinean 'Hypnotize' beans — with a body so juicy it's almost scary.


Passion House Coffee Roasters is located at 2631 N Kedzie Ave. Website. Twitter. Instagram.


Sawada Coffee (West Loop)
A sudden post-brunch downpour in the West Loop left me seeking shelter inside Sawada Coffee, champion barista Hiroshi Sawada's Chicago cafe, which comes with its own arcade games and pingpong table. The coffee is from Chicago-based Metropolis Coffee, and if you're a fan of matcha, there are plenty of special drinks on the menu, including Sawada's famed Military and Black Camo lattes. I stuck to a regular cortado, however, although regretted not saving room after brunch for a Doughnut Vault doughnut. My cortado was very well made, and the large, communal table that occupies most of Sawada's floor space was a great spot for people-watching. Had my Au Cheval dinner plans not worked out, the adjacent Green Street Smoked Meats would have made a great alternative.


Sawada Coffee is located at 112 N Green St. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

For more recommendations of speciality coffee shops in Chicago, do check out Brian's Coffee Spot; Brian is a frequent visitor to Chicago and has a multitude of reviews on his blog.

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