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Black Holes, Black Coffee

Recommendations for wasting time in Chicago cafés.

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Wasting Time in Chicago Cafés


Illustration by Meghan Ryan Morris

Illustration by Meghan Ryan Morris

While all spaces are marked by the passage of time, most successful cafés encourage visitors to linger and fall into the lull of passing moments. As the days get colder and shorter it might be tempting to stick to one’s own well-loved neighborhood hangouts, but in the spirit of time travel (and not to mention the blessed lull of winter break), here are a handful of suggestions for exploring some of Chicago’s chill-out spots that are perfect for escaping into new worlds of experiential and experimental consumption:

Bad Wolf Coffee

“Death to false grind!” proclaims this “alternative to alternative coffee shops” that features a wall-painting replica of Doctor Who’s Tardis, a nod to the space’s namesake. With no chairs and no wi-fi, tucked right under the Brown Line tracks, this spot encourages visitors to strike up conversations with the owner and other coffee compatriots around a narrow communal table. Rather than emphasizing “getting work done” in the go-go sense of being connected to a laptop or absorbed in paperwork, a visit to Bad Wolf encourages getting back to basic unplugged interactions. There isn’t a parade of fancy drinks here, just varying strengths of strong coffee that beg to be paired with the owner’s daily limited run of incredible from-scratch pastries.

3422 N. Lincoln Ave // Open Wed – Mon 7 am – 6 pm

The Wormhole Coffee
Wicker Park

This ’80s sci-fi-themed hangout is a microcosm of the hustle and bustle of Milwaukee Avenue and a favorite refueling stop for visitors and locals alike. Deep slate blue walls and minimalist furniture evoke a hyper-hip nerd’s lair, a cave more akin to a gamer’s basement peppered with beloved fraying movie posters, video game ephemera and carefully chosen tchotchkes. A real DeLorean and a battered Han Solo cardboard cutout loom over the rows of laptop-linked patrons arranged around low couches and sleek study tables. “Legend of Zelda” fan art and a tile mosaic of classic video game characters help keep the space thematic and cohesive, if not kitschy overload. But this sanctuary of pop cultural comfort translates into a selection of thematic treats such as homemade pop tarts and 80s celebrity inspired seasonal drink concoctions such as the Cosby Classic (a banana pudding latte).

1462 N. Milwaukee Ave // Open daily 7 am – 11 pm

Cafe Jumping Bean

This neighborhood standby has flourished as a haven for creatives of all kinds for nearly twenty years. Vividly painted tabletops play up beautiful stained glass window accents and punchy walls, reflecting the street’s saturated murals and signage. Rather than entertaining the idea of being a blinders-on, office away from home, the space is definitely a neighborhood gathering space complete with a small flatscreen broadcasting sports and news and a well-loved assortment of board games. The sandwiches, salads and other light fare come as large portions for little cost. There’s nothing more satisfying than coming here, ordering a Mexican hot chocolate and a cheese melt, listening to the ever-changing soundtrack of world music and watching the outside world fly by.

1439 W. 18th St // Mon – Fri: 6 am – 10 pm, Sat – Sun: 7 am – 7 pm

Cafe Mustache
Logan Square

Earthy, textural and cozy, this hotspot of local music and emerging art is a collection of decorative vignettes where everything clashes but nothing is out of place. Books of cartography and Daniel Clowes comics, a bevvy of records for sale and mismatched furniture playfully mesh with an array of facial hair-themed accoutrements (including the espresso machine’s very own wooden mustache). Wi-fi promptly shuts off at 8 pm on most nights in order to shift the focus away from the fog of personalized projects onto music acts. The menu features a hearty selection of drinks, cocktails, sandwiches and small plates, but the highlights are their vegetarian chili, Americanos, and the “Laura Palmer,” a mix of sparkling blood orange juice and vodka.

2313 N. Milwaukee Ave // Mon – Tues: 7 am – 8 pm, Wed – Fri: 7 am – 12 am, Sat: 8 am – 12 am, Sun: 8 am – 8 pm

The Coffee Studio

Nestled between antique shops at the northern tip of Andersonville is a sleek embodiment of how a modernist design firm might translate into a café. Light wood paneling and brushed aluminum play up the mod simplicity of Eames chairs and cheery space-age globe lighting, giving this sunny, airy den a polished finish. Despite the industrial-chic clean lines, there’s a warmth and craftiness to the menu. The “studio” nomenclature betrays the fact that the baristas hand pull each cup. It’s easy to get lost in a sea of glowing Macbooks and nod off to music ranging from lo-fi ambient noise to hyper Japanese pop, but the steady flow of patrons weaving in between the narrow spaces between tables on any given day ensures that you’re never alone in doing so.

5628 N. Clark St // Open daily 6:30 am – 9 pm

Intelligentsia Coffee
Millennium Park

Chicago is dotted with Intelligentsia outposts and the company’s wholesale business alone keeps half the town jacked up on caffeine. But the Millennium Park shop is worth stopping by for a prime example of the chain’s effortless, machine-like efficiency paired with the warmth of ritualistic coffee making. Post-industrial decor emphasizes a wide-reaching layout of high top tables and wall seats dotted with eager tourists and office workers escaping from work, only to do more work. The experience of watching dapper baristas line up along the bar to craft orders is akin to something in-between witnessing an assembly line and a parlor trick, a hypnotic testament to the art of the pour over. Be prepared to wait for up to 15 minutes for the best cup anywhere near SAIC during the morning and lunch rushes.

53 E. Randolph St // Mon – Fri: 6:30 am – 8 pm, Sat: 7 am – 8 pm, Sun: 7 am – 7 pm

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