With so many independent coffee shops out there, there's pretty much no excuse for stopping at Starbucks anymore. Five new coffee shops opened over the past couple months, and they range from a Doctor Who-inspired coffee shop with treats by a Schwa alum to an art-filled café with Dinkel's doughnuts. Which one is worth hitting for your morning coffee fix? We hit Bad Wolf Coffee, Ready Coffee, Ugly Mug Café, Portage Grounds Coffee & Tea and Fuel Station to find out.
3422 N Lincoln Ave
First Impression: It’s bright and sunny and feels like the antithesis of Starbucks. There are no seats, just one standing table, and the walls feature band posters and paintings. Whovians will appreciate a couple Doctor Who references, including a Tardis mural and Bad Wolf art. The overall vibe is chill; this is a place to come and enjoy a cup of coffee and a conversation, not a place to work on your laptop for hours.
Coffee: The menu here is small, featuring a selection of espresso drinks, Counter Culture Coffee and Rishi Tea. The cappuccino was smooth, bold and strong, packing quite a punch. It’s small for the price, but it’s just the right amount of caffeine and flavor.
Food: Jonathan Ory, formerly of Schwa and Momofuku Ko in New York, opened Bad Wolf and he’s making a remarkable selection of made in-house pastries. The kouign-amann, a sweet pastry with a croissant-like texture, is flaky, buttery and sweet, with a hint of crystallized sugar on top. The pasteis de nata, a small custard cup, has a creamy texture and a slight lemon flavor and paired well with the cappuccino.
Service: Ory and his lone employee provided great service, making recommendations on what to try and indulging us in a discussion about Doctor Who.
Tab: Coffee, $3; cappuccino, $3.50; pastries, $2–$3 each.—Emily Gilmer
1562 N Milwaukee Ave
First impressions: This place is big, almost too big to be a coffee shop, with lots of seating. There were several other customers, most of whom were working on laptops. The walls are covered in eclectic art, including a series of prints of children with military weapons. Michael Jackson blared through the sound system, which didn’t really seem to fit the disconnected, hipster-ish vibe of the place.
Coffee: The menu featured the standard selection of coffee and espresso drinks. A sizeable selection of freshly made fruit and vegetable juices is also available. Standard milk and sweetener options are available. The cappuccino was a little weak and heavy on the foam.
Food: Ready brings in Dinkel’s doughnuts and pastries, and sandwiches from Delightful Pastries. The selection of sandwiches was small and I opted for an egg’spresso bagel sandwich with cheese, made in house. The eggs were nice and fluffy but tasted like they came out of a bottle. The multigrain bagel was soft and warm but the sandwich needed more seasoning and some crunchy veggies. I couldn’t resist trying the maple pecan donut and I wasn’t disappointed. It was cakey but not too dense. The maple glaze is the dominant flavor, and the crushed pecans add a slight crunch.
Service: The service left something to be desired. We were the only customers in line and the barista forgot my cappuccino, so I had to go back to the counter and ask for it. They were nice enough, but could have been more professional.
Tab: Bagel sandwich, $4; cappuccino. $3; doughnut, $2.25.—EG
1458 W Chicago Ave
First impressions: There are a few tables, a couple of which have armchairs, a couch along one wall and limited counter seating. I felt like I could sit for a while and do homework and every table has the Wi-Fi network and password posted, so you don’t have to go back up to ask the barista. Decorations ranged from a wall of black and white portraits to a wall of printed pages with snarky descriptions of Chicago neighborhoods, ie. “Lincoln Park: Watch the Yuppies in their natural habitat.”
Coffee: The menu features Passion House coffee and espresso drinks, as well as tea and non-caffeinated options, like sour cherry lemonade. While my cappuccino had a nice flavor, it wasn’t hot and lacked its signature thick foam. I was able to drink the cappuccino as soon as it was made, and within a couple of minutes, it was room temperature and all the foam was gone.
Food: A variety of breakfast and lunch sandwiches and a selection of sweets, including scones, croissants and cookies. The Heaven Sent sandwich, made with roast beef, white cheddar, red onion, arugula and garlic horseradish mayo on a pretzel bun was overly greasy and while the roast beef was thick cut and juicy, the large chunks of raw red onion overpowered every other flavor. The peanut butter cookie had actual peanuts in it, which added a nice crunch, but it was dry.
Service: The barista greeted everyone who walked in but she still seemed aloof. Staff brought the sandwiches to the table, which was nice so I didn’t have to stand and wait for it. My major complaint was that I was not given change at the register. My bill came to $14.88 and I gave $15. I know it’s only 12 cents, but I still expect to be given the change.
Tab: Cappuccino, $3.25; sandwich, $8.50; cookie, $1.75.—EG
5501 W Irving Park
First impressions: The space is open and airy, with tall windows that let in a lot of light. There are counters and tables to work at, plus a little room in back to hold meetings. Lots of people were taking their coffee to go, but a handful stuck around to work on laptops.
Coffee: The coffee is Intelligentsia, and there’s the standard lineup of coffee and lattes. Both the latte and iced coffee were well-made and strong. There are also special drinks, like strawberry lavender lemonade, which was faintly floral and delicious.
Food: There’s a variety of baked items available, which Portage brings in from JR Dessert Bakery in Rogers Park. While the Danish was flavorless and dry, the monkey bread was loaded with cinnamon and sugar—it would benefit from being heated, but we still went back for a second one. Portage Grounds changed providers after we visited—now Fannie Schmoe's is making the pastries (pictured) and there's an on-site oven to warm them up.
Service: The counter service was helpful and warm.
Tab: Latte, $3.75; iced coffee, $3; lemonade, $2.75; pastries, $1.75–$2.50. —Amy Cavanaugh
Fuel Station (2453 N Clark St)
First impressions: Fuel Station took over a shuttered Caribou Coffee space and brightened it up. There are big windows, yellow walls and a patio with orange seats. I went at 9am, so most people were working on laptops or grabbing coffee en route to work.
Coffee: Fuel roasts its own beans from Uncommon Coffee Roasters on site, and the coffee tastes very fresh and strong. Besides the cold brew, I sampled the Cosmic Coffee, a blend of coffee, chai and other ingredients and the barista told me owner Sean Tehrani makes himself. It’s spicy and sweet and a little much for the first drink of the day, but I’d get it again.
Food: Fuel makes sandwiches and salads and brings in pastries from around the city. The almond croissant was perfectly flaky, while a mini quiche was served cold.
Service: Service was welcoming and friendly.
Tab: Cold brew, $2.85; pastries, $3–$5.—AC