Someone at a party once asked me “Why are people from Chicago so proud of being from Chicago?” I’m not sure what the answer to that question is —or if the premise is even correct — but I can’t deny that when I think of the city I grew up in, I do tend to rate its people and establishments quite highly.
This definitely extends to Chicago's specialty coffee shops, which, like in most major cities (and I am required to insist here that Chicago is one of our most major of cities), are way too plentiful to cover in one post. So, with many apologies to the dozens of coffee shops excluded, here are eight shops I’m most likely to visit the four or five times a year I fly into O'Hare.
Loba Pastry + Coffee
3422 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60657
Fans of tasty pastries and coffee were saddened by the closing of Bad Wolf in 2015, and tremendously relieved months later when Val Ballado, a baker at Bad Wolf, announced she was taking over the space and relaunching as Loba. There isn’t a pastry here you won’t want to eat (look at this red mole sourdough croissant. Look at it!) and the coffee program is serious as well. It’s the only shop in Chicago at which you’ll consistently be able to grab a cup from Grand Rapids’ excellent Madcap Coffee. That combination of excellent pastries and a roaster I really admire (and don’t often see in NYC) makes Loba the shop I’m most likely to hit on any given visit home.
2012 West Fulton Street
Chicago, Illinois 60612
One of our favorite Chicago roasters runs a very nice coffee counter out of the front of their West Town roastery. Located a few blocks north of the United Center and about a mile and a half west of the restaurant row that has congealed around Fulton Market, it’s a very pleasant space to experience all the wonderful coffees Metric offers and peak into their roasting operation. A bonus awesome place to drink their coffee in Chicago: the Museum of Contemporary Art, which slings Metric drinks from their downstairs coffee counter.
Four Letter Word Coffee
3022 W. Diversey Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60647
4LW opened its first roastery on an island off the coast of Istanbul, but seeing as its owners met in Chicago decades earlier, the fact that their second location is some 5,500 miles away in Logan Square isn’t that surprising. From the furniture to the decor, this small shop is one of the most beautiful spaces to drink coffee in Chicago. In addition to the requisite espresso and drip, I can’t think of another shop I’ve been to in the US serving these kinds of wonderfully sourced and roasted beans as Turkish coffee. They also get creative with seasonal drinks — the last time I stopped by in the winter, their love of the digestif Underberg came through in my latte. And while 4 Letter Word is excellent on its own terms, it has become part of a veritable power trio with Diversey Wines (my go-to for a bottle of natural wine to bring to my parents' house for holidays) and Cellar Door Provisions (the excellent bakery and restaurant, which provides 4LW's baked goods) directly across the street.
Back of the Yards Coffee
2059 West 47th Street
Chicago, Illinois 60609
If you’re going to name your coffee shop after your neighborhood, you should probably rep that neighborhood pretty hard. The lifelong Back of the Yards residents who opened this shop and roastery do just that, with community-focused events and programs in heavy rotation. I stopped in on one of the hottest days of summer, so an espresso chased by an ice cold bottle of Topo Chico was (as it usually is) a perfect order.
The Wormhole Coffee
1462 North Milwaukee Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60622
In the heart of Wicker Park, the Wormhole has long balanced a forward-thinking approach to coffee with an '80s nostalgia-fueled approach to decor (see: the Delorean famously parked alongside its back wall). Serving coffee both from its sister company Halfwit and a rotating casts of guest roasters, the Wormhole is a reliably tasty place to get a beverage near the eternally-bustling intersection lovingly(ish?) known as The Crotch.
Carver 47 Juice & Experiment Bar
1060 East 47th Street
Chicago, Illinois 60653
Four miles down 47 Street from Back of the Yards, find another cafe holding their neighborhood down. Carver 47 is located in the Little Black Pearl, an arts organization that has been working with the youth of Kenwood and the historic Bronzeville neighborhood for just over 25 years. They’ve even opened a Chicago Public Schools-accredited high school (which you’ll need to walk into to use the restroom when school isn’t in session). They serve tasty Intelligentsia-roasted coffee in a large, art-filled space that’s very worth seeing.
4200 West Irving Park Road
Chicago, Illinois 60641
Chicago really is a wonderful city for shops where the food is just as outstanding as the coffee (and vice versa). Finom opened in late 2018 in Old Irving Park, a little further northwest than Specialty Coffee shops usually dared tread (and, therefore, closer to my parents’ house). It makes espresso, drip, your regular lineup of drinks, and features a menu of Hungarian food that ranges from adventurous (veal brains make an appearance in a pate on a toast that also includes flowers) to ultimately comforting (maybe the best over-the-top egg sandwich I’ve ever had). The vibe is wood panels, a couch, and lots of books — along with their trademark bird designs; stylish but also reminiscent of the '90s coffee shops that make a lot of us feel at home.
Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea
You can’t talk about specialty coffee in Chicago (really, the US) without talking about Intelligentsia. Founded in 1995, it was one of the earliest roasters to focus on working directly with farmers and its influence on everything from the way we market single origin coffees to the amount of ex-Intelli baristas that have gone on the open their own companies nationwide is massive. If you drink specialty coffee in Chicago there’s a decent chance someone who learned a bunch at Intelligentsia had a hand in preparing your coffee. There are six Intelli shops in Chicago, meaning the odds are good that you’ll be near one at some point. I have a soft spot for the original Broadway shop and Logan Square, mostly for fond memories of my visiting my friends when they worked there, but the company focuses on each of their shops looking fairly distinct, so visiting more than one is a totally decent idea.