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Chicago Tribune

A Cup Of Comfort; Neighborhood Coffeehouses Offer A Shot Of Warmth In A Cold World

By Judy Hevrdejs, Tribune staff reporter

January 16, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

Eleazar Delgado opened Cafe Jumping Bean in Pilsen because "I felt there was a need for a place for people to gather over a cup of coffee, to talk about what's happened, to slow your day down a little bit," he said. "Once you come in and hang out a while, you get to know everybody."

That's easy enough to do: Jumping Bean is energized by the chatter at the tables, the vibrant art on the walls. It's a scene perfumed by coffee and cozy as only a tiny coffeehouse can be.

The reasons for opening Kopi, A Travelers Cafe, in Andersonville were equally clear. A coffeehouse should be "a refuge whether you're traveling or you're local," said Kopi's Al Rose. "A warming, comfortable, welcoming place."

Indeed, a front area of Kopi boasts floor pillows and low wood tables from Bali, inviting visitors to settle down for long, leisurely conversations. Tables toward the rear nudge a bookshelf lined with travel guides, for the reader and the dreamer.

While Kopi and Jumping Bean bring comfort zones to a community--just like the big java boys such as Starbucks--they offer something more: a personality that reflects the neighborhood, the proprietor, the customers.

Not unlike a neighborhood tavern or a front porch, coffeehouses give neighbors a place to connect. They are community centers where conversation is punctuated by the whoosh and hiss of coffee machines.

And in winter, more than any other season, coffeehouses offer us salvation from the frostiness of the outdoors, from the isolation such bundled-up, icy weather creates.

At Humboldt Park's Cafe Colao, for example, the cortaditos are triple-espresso strong and the guava-filled pastelillos deliciously flaky. Yet the reason Brenda Torres visits at least three times a week? "It's the people. It's a lot of community," says Torres, 27, a performance and graphics artist who hails from Fajardo, Puerto Rico. "It's like home."

In fact, expect "more emphasis on socializing in the neighborhood . . . real conversation versus the kissy-kissy greetings" if a study, Year in Prospect: 2004, by New York-based communications group Euro RSCG Worldwide is on target. "When the going gets global, the global go local," predicts the study.

Things in the coffeehouse business haven't always been energetic, of course. A 1988 Tribune article worried about the dearth of coffee drinkers. Little could anyone have judged the impact of a company called Starbucks, which made its first foray beyond Seattle to Chicago in late 1987, opening first on West Jackson Boulevard. Several months later, they opened in the Oak-Rush area followed by a third property at 150 N. Wacker Drive, which remains open, one of the chains more than 7,400 locations worldwide.

The history of coffee can be as murky as a badly-made espresso, but it's generally believed coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia. A firm date is dicey. Still, by the 1500s, coffeehouses were well established, arriving in Vienna in the 1680s and thriving in London in the 1700s, where there were hundreds.

"Coffeehouses," noted Mark Pendergrast in his 1999 book, "Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed Our World," "have provided places to plan revolutions, write poetry, do business and meet friends."

Whether you're a latte lover or espresso sipper, coffeehouses continue to fit that bill perfectly. Here are a few of our favorites, offering a variety of personalities, coffee blends and roasts.

Arbor Vitae Java & Juice, 111 W. Jackson Ave., Naperville; 630-778-9090

Some nine years ago, the Pryor family--that would be mom Fran, dad Bill plus siblings Theresa, Bill and Jennifer--decided they wanted a family business that would involve everyone. Their tiny coffeehouse, Arbor Vitae--tree of life--followed. "We just wanted the place to be fresh and healthy," said Theresa. These days, the family roasts some 400 pounds of coffee three times a week for customers interested in taking home, say, their Wild Ass blend or settling down with a cup of richly fragrant java amidst the walls painted with coffee beans and a pile of burlap coffee sacks. Besides coffee, teas, smoothies and house creations (Angel Wing has white Ghiradelli chocolate, espresso, steamed milk and whipped cream), soups, sandwiches and desserts are also on tap.

House music: Pretty much jazz, with live music usually Saturdays, sometimes Fridays. "We play Etta James, Nina [Simone] and Miles [Davis]," said Dave Giedraitis, while manning the cash register.

Small coffee: $1.40

Small cappuccino: $2.55

Cafe at Screenz Digital Universe, 1730 Sherman Ave., Evanston, 847-332-1900

Dan Kite opened his first cafe at Screenz Digital Universe seven years ago at 2717 N. Clark St. Now, two more locations--in Evanston and Andersonville--keep the computing crowd, gamers and WiFi savvy content. "The cafe is a tiny part of our business," said Kite. Still, it fits. At the Evanston location, for example, Intelligentsia coffee is served in kilo, mega and giga sizes (as cappuccino, cafe latte, cafe mocha, etc.). Fountain drinks, bottled drinks and "munchies" including candy, Connie's pizza, Little Debbie snacks, Sobe bottled drinks and Hansen's Energy Drinks play supporting roles, all of which can be enjoyed either at tables and booths set up for computer work or cushy chairs.

House music: Adult alternative music

Small coffee: $1.15

Small cappuccino: $2.10

Cafe Colao, 2638 W. Division St.; 773-276-1780

Artwork hangs on the walls. Folk art from Puerto Rico lines the shelves. Spanish and English mix with salsa rhythms. Glass and wood bakery cases boast trays of the baked-on-the-premises flaky pastries filled with sweetened cream cheese or guava paste. Long loaves of the soft-crusted pan sobao fill another shelf. An entire counter is covered with slices of cakes, more pastries and a dark, dense budin (or bread pudding). These sweets, as owner Wanda Colon points out, draw fans of the Puerto Rican desserts from the around the city and the suburbs to the tiny counter and wood tables and chairs that fill this small coffeehouse/bakery. And to accompany the sweets? A cafe con leche, a cortadito ("A potent cup of coffee," says Colon of the triple espresso with very little milk). Don't have a sweet tooth? A popular sandwich is a ham-and-cheese number called matamonchi. Translation? Killer of the munchies, she says.

House music: Salsa

Small regular coffee: 75 cents

Small cappuccino: $1.75

Cafe Jumping Bean, 1439 W. 18th St.; 312-455-0019

The walls, the tables, the counter--they are all covered with art. All that bright color sets the scene at this small coffeehouse, where owner Eleazar Delgado says the house motto is: "Relax." That may mean challenging another patron to a game of chess--a popular pastime here. Or sipping coffee, munching on a wonderfully runny grilled cheese sandwich, something done with focaccia, a good soup or a dessert. It may mean delving into a book, perusing the jammed bulletin board, savoring the art, or people watching, a bonus in this neighborhood where Mexican accents share conversation time with artists discussing the latest shows.

House music: Jazz to rock, depending on the crowd.

Small coffee: $1.35

Small cappuccino: $1.85

Intelligentsia, 3123 N. Broadway; 773-348-8058

Eight years ago, Emily Mange and her husband, Doug Zell, traveled from San Francisco to Chicago, packing a hefty passion for coffee and the art of coffee roasting. These days, coffee roasting is done on West Fulton; another coffeehouse is located at 53 W. Jackson and the original Broadway property thrives. One recent chilly afternoon, the front tables were jammed with folks chattering away amidst the pale sage walls of the Broadway location. At stools along the front window, a couple sipped from large, blue striped cups, while in the back, several people lounged on a cushy sofa. Coffee and tea are the mainstays here, with a few pastries, including a yummy almond croissant. There's good reason for that: Mange and Zell believe fervently in "latte art." "Latte art is everything having to do with the preparation of a fantastic latte," explained Mange. With that, she ticked off a list of crucial factors, from the calibration of the machine, to its cleanliness, water temperature, tamping, steaming to get the correct amount of air--you get the picture. "It is a science and it produces a sweeter, smoother, silkier drink," she said.

House music: Varied

Small coffee: $1.05

Small cappuccino: $2.05

Julius Meinl, 3601 N. Southport Ave.; 773-868-1857

A bit of Europe is transported to the corner of Addison and Southport every time bags of roasted-in-Vienna coffee arrive and each time coffee is delivered to one of the tables on a silver tray, a small spoon balanced atop a glass of water. Meinl, the only such coffeehouse in America, has a healthy pedigree: Julius Meinl began roasting coffee in Vienna in 1862. "We do say Julius Meinl is probably the best coffee in the world," said Natalie Berg, a manager. These days, the aroma of that coffee fills a room that echoes Vienna in its decor. Settle in and order the topfenstrudel (an ethereal cheese strudel we adore at $4.50 a slice) or the apfelstrudel ($4.50) or dobos torte ($4), breaking through its caramel shell for the chocolate butter cream treasure. Salads, sandwiches and teas fill out the menu, with an Austrian breakfast (soft poached egg, ham cheese and toast) also available.

House music: Classical music; a classical duo or jazz group is often scheduled Thursdays and Saturday nights.

Small coffee: $1.50

Small cappuccino: $2.50

Kopi, A Travelers Cafe, 5317 N. Clark St.; 773-989-5674

"We want people to leave here as happy or happier than when they walked in," said Al Rose, explaining co-owner Rhonda Welbel's vision for the cozy coffeehouse she created. How cozy is it? Well, if you settle onto one of the pillows in the platform area, lean back, sip a cafe au lait in a big mug, nibble at one of the many desserts--control yourself, there are lots of decadent goodies gathered from bakers around the city--that's cozy. Besides, who wouldn't feel comfortable in a place with flying spirits--winged angels and frogs from Bali--hanging overhead, a colorful gift shop area and clocks telling time in Kathmandu to Kyoto? Besides coffee, there are teas, specialty drinks (root beer floats or chai shake, anyone?) as well as sandwiches, salads and soups.

House music: World music is on tap, but classics, country and folk get air time too.

Small coffee: $1.25

Small cappuccino: $2.25

Kouk's Vintage Cafe, 5653 N. Northwest Highway; 773-594-8888

Georgia--nickname Kouk--and Andy Pappas always dreamed of opening a combination coffeehouse/resale shop. When they saw the building on Northwest Highway, "we fell in love." Pairing the seemingly incongruous elements of coffee and old stuff filled the bill for Kouk: drinking coffee and shopping are her two favorite things. An old wood-and-mirrored bar is the center for the coffee action, with bar stools and few tables set up amidst the antiques and collectibles. Expect to be included in whatever conversation is being held at the bar because, as Kouk said, "this place is friendly." The coffee is tasty, so are the snacks: biscotti, some light sandwiches (ham and cheese or spinach and cheese on croissant). The shopping? Collectibles, old records, pieces of furniture--you name it.

House music: Billie Holliday and more. "We both love jazz," said Kouk.

Small coffee: $1.25

Small cappuccino: $2.25

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