NEWS

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July 20, 2010

Collected Wisdom: Hot coffee

What better way to start a Tuesday morning than with this Venti-sized dissection of the Hyde Park coffee scene that the 1994 Orientation Issue offered incoming first-years, most of whom would scarcely have imagined their choice in coffee providers could be so fraught. It's a cool piece, not only because it takes us back to a day when a 69-cent cup of coffee was "hopelessly overpriced" and a little known coffee-brewing newcomer name of Starbucks required a 300-word description, but also because a lot of the café cliques and stereotypes discussed here remain more-or-less intact.

My one quibble: My beloved Cobb Coffee Shop has way more going for it than the "Pop Tarts and a toaster" the author mentions as its lone strong points. Maybe that was fair in the mid-nineties, but times have changed around the Cobb Coffee Shop.

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Too tired? Get Wired!

A who's who and what's where pocket guide to coffee culture at the U of C

By David J. Bird

Sometimes a necessary element of a student's life, a mug of coffee can be a social event, a study aid, a gourmet treat, and or an excuse for a study break. On a campus dotted with coffee shops, many tucked away in odd corners of academic buildings, it pays well to be informed about the varieties and differences one encounters around Hyde Park.

Off-campus, several restaurants offer superior or distinctive coffees as drinks with or after a meal. Of course, there are the usual other coffee shops along Hyde Park's three major thoroughfares (57th, 55th, and 53rd). Every coffee personality has its niche, whether it's a campus nook like the Div School or Emma G's on 53rd Street.

The campus dynamic for coffee shops should change dramatically during this coming year, with the advent of a major chain right here on campus: Starbucks has opened a branch on the ground floor of the Bookstore building. Following remora-like in the wake of book-selling mammoth Barnes & Noble, who have taken over management of the U of C Bookstore, Starbucks offers clean, open eating areas and a standardized decor that would make Henry Ford proud. The Seattle-generated coffee wave which has swept business districts and trendy overclass neighborhoods across the nation has finally made ripples here at the heart of the U of C, bringing Starbucks' over-roasted, over-priced beans to the already caffeine saturated U of C campus.

The drinks they offer dazzle the imagination and stun the palate—imagine a "Frapuccino," or an iced, decaf espresso—and aren't easy on the pocketbook. Their coffee-of-the-day varies according to the bean selected, but the French Roast and espresso are quite good if you like a strong, dark roasts, and the Vienna blend makes an excellent early-morning cup of joe. Pastries, scones, and other overpriced, sugary morsels are available, too, for those that like to snack between meals with tall, skinny mochas. Starbucks also sells whole beans and ground coffee by the pound in a dizzying array of blends and varieties, but these aren't cheap either. The advantages are that service should be consistent and good, the café boasts a large seating and reading area, and it's very convenient to the Med School and the Main Quads; regular patrons of Cobb Coffee Shop and other campus spots may see fewer medical students this fall.

Campus

Walk into any coffee shop on campus and you're bound to see U of C students studying, flirting (sort of), eating with friends and telling funny stories. Even if you don't drink coffee, if you're at the U of C you eventually wind up in a coffee shop. Across campus, each coffee shop has a quirky personality all its own and an attitude that defines the social life there. Where you drink your coffee says a lot about your personality.

My personal favorite is the Classics Cafe, located on the second floor of the Classics building. The wood paneling and the bulky but comfortable wood chairs give Classics a polished and erudite look; the truly pretentious will feel perfectly at home in Classics. The large window on the far wall lets in the afternoon light on days when the sun makes a grand appearance in the Chicago sky. The busts of Shakespeare, Voltaire, and Homer lend Classics a puckish sense of humor than doesn't take itself too seriously. Unfortunately Classics is hopelessly overpriced by campus standards. A small, 10-ounce cup of coffee costs 69 cents plus tax, the medium costs 78 cents, and the large, 24-ounce cup will set you back 87 cents—the coffee is good, though.

Classics offers both daily varieties of flavored coffee and international blends. Unless you have a strong preference for the flavor of the day, stick with the international blend. The spiced, hot apple cider is a great non-coffee alternative; a small cup costs 75 cents.

Attempts to play around with "fun" espresso drinks frequently end up ruining good coffee, but Classics has hit on a few espresso drinks that will warm the taste buds of even a coffee purist. The "depth charge" offers a straight shot of espresso submerged in a 10-ounce cup of regular coffee for around a dollar and will make your heart palpitate with a caffeine rush. Most of the other cappuccino variations cost between $1.20 and $1.70.

The food at Classics is strictly for snacking. The cheddar bread, also available at the B-School, is a great light lunch or snack. For a serious lunch, though, you can find better prices elsewhere on campus. Still, Classics has the best atmosphere for reading, studying, or conversing. At Classics, you get what you pay for; and what you are paying for is refined style and sophisticated ambience.

Regular patrons of the Divinity School Coffee Shop in the basement of Swift Hall probably disagree with most of the above. This remarkably loyal group of coffee drinkers tends to swear by their coffee and the Div School. Despite the Div School's slogan, "Where God Drinks Coffee," you won't see God there, but Kerouac-looking figures abound. It's tempting to envision a rivalry of cool developing between fans of the Div School and the regulars at Classics, but in reality the Div School and Classics have equally cool, if different, vibes. Unlike Classics, which presents an atmosphere of academic arrogance, the Div School invokes images of an underground Bohemian coffeehouse. If you've got a black beret that you haven't had the courage to wear in public, try it out here. The Div School has an atmosphere that manages to be relentlessly cool and literary without being too artsy or pretentious. The main room of the Div School is fairly small though, and the shop can get really crowded, especially around lunch. The auxiliary space down the hall doesn't have the decor of the main room; if you can't get a table in the main room, take your coffee outside.

The coffee here is a very good brew. If you can stomach it, the best way to drink it is black. It has a nice aroma, low acidity, and very little aftertaste. Regular coffee costs 45 cents for a small cup, 75 cents for a medium, and $1 even for a large. As an early morning wake-me-up you can get a small coffee and a chocolate croissant for $1.10. You can find better croissants on the streets of Paris, but this is as good as it gets on campus. Like Classics, the Div School does espresso and cappuccino for $1 and $1.50, respectively, but the Div School doesn't serve up the interestingly jumpy variations that Classics has.

The Div School does serve much better lunch items than Classics. Pizza for $1.50 a slice is a good deal. Also offered are lunch items from Thai 55 and the Nile. These are all great for lunch, but many can be found elsewhere on campus, too. Ordinary sandwiches are available for between $2.50 and $2.75; the chicken breast with cheese is tasty. The Div School is one of the most popular shops on campus, and not without reason. Like good coffee, the Div School can be both a pleasure and an addiction.

Coffee is the last reason anyone would go to Cobb Coffee Shop. For students still trudging through the Core, it is the quickest place to grab a bite to eat and something to drink, though.

Cobb lacks the style and character of other coffee shops. Still Cobb can't be condemned for two reasons: Pop Tarts and a toaster. Whoever had the inspired idea of setting up a toaster for use in toasting bagels and bread deserves a prize. The Pop Tarts are also an amazingly good idea. Cobb stocks several varieties, and a pack of two costs only 75 cents.

The coffee here is horribly weak, but it is the cheapest on campus. When you bring in your own mug, a piping hot stimulant loaded with milk and sugar costs only 30 cents. Gourmet and decaf varieties are also available for 10 cents extra, but they aren't worth the trouble.

Tea is by far the best beverage for your money at Cobb. If you bring in your own mug, a cup of hot tea costs only a quarter, and Cobb has the best assortment of blends and varieties of tea on campus. Many blends of the Celestial Seasonings teas are available and several of the Twinings black teas as well. Even for diehard coffee drinkers, these are a great alternative to the Cobb brew. The best thing to get before an early morning class is the Lapsang Souchong tea. It has a really heavy smoky taste that you don't find in most teas. When combined with a pack of Pop Tarts, you can get breakfast before class for $1!

Cobb's Snapple drinks are only 80 cents, a fabulous deal. Prices elsewhere on campus are over a dollar. At lunch the food goes quickly. Medici pizza runs for $1.75 for cheese and $2.25 for spinach, pepperoni or sausage. A hummus cup or sandwich from the Nile costs $2.

Cobb is what it promises to be: a convenient, no-frills place to grab something to drink and eat and kill time between classes. In this respect it functions very well, but it doesn't really have a great deal of character or loyalty. It doesn't need such aesthetics. Location and price ensure a steady stream of patrons.

The C-Shop also has a great location. Unlike Cobb, the C-Shop and Hutch Commons next door are brimming with possibilities, but most of these possibilities are unrealized. I can think of only one good reason to go to the C-Shop on a regular basis: Shake Day. Rapidly becoming a campus tradition, Shake Day features any flavor of milk shake for $1 on Wednesdays. At the beginning of the year the size of the Shake Day cup was reduced. The shake is still a good deal, but in reducing the size of the shakes the C-Shop came off looking stingy.

The coffee here is pathetic to begin with and the C-Shop adds insult to injury by doing some really horrible things to it. Have you ever had a craving for a "Butterscotch Cappuccino"? Me neither. Yet the C-Shop feels that this and other exciting flavors like "Cherry Cappuccino Royale" are what the U of C wants from coffee. Hopefully the University will think of something better to do with the C-Shop now that the Reynolds Club has undergone a renovation; rumors have circulated for years about a possible food court or fast-food franchise such as Taco Bell. At least the awful designer coffees will go.

If you have ever considered getting an MBA you should spend 20 minute in the B-School Coffee Shop. Located in the Basement of Stuart Hall, the Gargoyle Coffee Shop is the B-School's contribution to the pantheon of coffee shops on campus. In price list and in entrance it appears to be loosely modeled after Classics and the Div School, but the entire place comes off as slick, corporate, and yuppified. The coffee is so-so, but not intolerable; you can do better for between 70 cents and 85 cents a cup. Tea is outrageously high at 65 cents a cup; fiscally responsible finance students should go elsewhere. Sandwiches are the best thing for lunch at $2.25 for roast beef, veggie, turkey, or tuna. The decor of the sitting area is sharply contrasted with any other shop on campus. The comfortable chairs and couches make the whole room look like the "Ten Forward Lounge" on "Star Trek: The Next Generation." There is a TV in the lounge, which kills conversation and distracts from study efforts. The food is typical of other campus shops, but the prices are high and the atmosphere is not to my taste. It's worth a try though. If you don't mind the picture of prestigious alumni businessmen on the wall and a big plaque thanking the corporations who give financial aid to the school, you'll probably be perfectly happy.

Both Harper Library and Regenstein have coffee on hand for sleepy students and study breaks. The coffee is bad in both places, but it's not very expensive either. Harper's Weiss Coffee Shop on the mezzanine level above the library is priced similarly to Cobb. Sweets are the study food of choice. Big cookies and lots of donuts will keep you awake with sugar when the weak coffee fails you. If your work gives you a headache there is Advil, too. The real advantage of Harper is its proximity to Harper library and that fact that, on weeknights, it stays open with the library. The view overlooking the circulation desk in the library gives you a unique perspective on the world of library sciences, but if you are not planning on a future as a librarian, you probably won't care. Weiss is also the home of the College Core Tutoring program and there is a nice space set aside for tutors and students complete with nice tables and a chalk board.

Like Weiss, Ex Libris, located on the A-level of the Reg, is merely a place to take a break from a long night of studying. The only reason to go is to escape work at the Reg. It's impossible to study in the sitting area because the lights are too bright and the acoustics ensure that the sound of a pen dropping is amplified to deafening levels. There are several coin-operated coffee machines that dispense a coffee-like fluid. Try them out. They are fun, but don't think of what comes out as coffee.

Other coffee alternatives abound on campus. The Social Sciences Tea Room offers coffee and teas and cookies. It's very quiet and quite enjoyable for reading. The furniture is plush and elegant. Don't think of it as a coffee shop, but instead think of it as a well-decorated living room. The only source of discomfort lies in the realization that you'll probably never own furniture this nice. Ida's Cafe in Ida Noyes continues to offer MUG on Friday nights until midnight. Coffee, crayons, and games can be a lot of fun either before or after a Doc show.

Off Campus

One important advantage of off-campus coffee shops is that they offer a smoking area. For some people, coffee and cigarettes go together, especially for a late-night study or paper-writing session. Of course, for those who think about their health, they'll probably just stick to coffee, but the fact remains that you've got to get off campus to sip joe and and drag a fag.

57th Street

The Medici is Hyde Park's default coffee shop. The drip coffee makers generally bring out the acidity of the beans, which at the Medici are pretty terrible to start with. A bottomless mug costs $1, and some of the staff are obsessive about keeping the mugs filled. A good drink is the Cafe au Lait, which comes with a mug of steaming milk and makes an excellent drink for dessert or after a movie. The Medici is open until 1 a.m. and has tables and walls crying out for graffiti.

Three blocks down, there's Salonica, which opens earlier (7 a.m.) but closes promptly at 10 every evening. Best known for their luscious breakfasts, especially the french toast (served throughout the day), Salonica offers a bottomless cop o' coffee for 90 cents. It's best taken with sugar, as it's usually warmed three times over, but if you arrive early in the morning you'll get a pretty savory treat when the first steaming mug arrives at your table. In the evening, try a slice of their pie along with a cup of coffee.

On the same block is Caffé Florian, a small and oddly set up restaurant that draws on the atmosphere of a Venetian coffee shop. Their sandwiches and meals are of negligible interest, but the melior ("plunger-pots") coffee and regular roasts are perhaps the best of 57th Street. The service is traditionally abominable, but turnover is high enough that it's worth trying. Their desserts are notoriously expensive but rich and delectable.

55th Street

Caffé Tutti, a café which can't decide whether it's a gourmet delicatessen or a neighborhood coffee bar, occupies a larger corner of the renovated Hyde Park Shopping Center. The drinks are pretty standard and unexciting, but the selection of biscotti is the best in Hyde Park. During warmer weather the outdoors tables are an excellent meeting and conversation area.

The plethora of Thai restaurants east of the IC tracks offer traditional Thai iced tea and coffee drinks for after dinner. These really do go best after a pleasantly-spicy meal, but can be taken as an evening drink.

La Brioche, the overpriced French bakery adjacent to Orly's, has some of the best breads, rolls, and pastries in Hyde Park, but charges through the nose for them. An early-morning sweet roll and coffee are a nice treat on the way to school or the Jeffrey. Don't get addicted, though—it's an expensive habit.

53rd Street

Steve's House of Kebabs or whatever dishes out a mean Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee is a very fine-ground mix of Anatolian beans and spices, usually cardamon. The distinctive bittersweet taste and thick, muddy texture neatly complement a lamb sandwich or hot vegetable dish, and Turkish coffee is excellent by itself as well. The little stove-top cup is deceptively meek looking: Turkish coffee packs a big caffeine and sugar wallop.

Emma G's Coffee Shop has a wide and tasty variety of coffees, usually with three different beans brewed in small batches available daily. The scones form a tasty complement to the coffees, and the ever-changing array of cakes and cookies reflect the eclectic individuality of the café.

There's another Starbucks on the corner of Harper and 53rd, but it's geared for a quick in-and-out: few stools, no tables, little free space. Low on atmosphere and distinguishing features, this Starbucks just takes up space and charges too darn much for its basic joe.

And last but certainly not least, don't forget the legendary Hyde Park cafeteria Valois. Open before dawn (6 a.m.) and with a fascinating cast of regulars, this greasy spoon dishes out decent coffee for 60 cents a cup (refills are 20 cents). Sit in the front window and watch 53rd Street wake up.

Above all, don't get into a coffee shop rut. Nothing is more depressing that sitting in the same old place day after day drinking cup after bitter cup and getting caffeine headaches, ignoring the people sitting around you. Grab a couple friends and try a a few new places. You won't always get great coffee but you will have a great time. And that—conversation, atmosphere, and often an escape from the routine of study and snow—is the whole point of a coffee shop in the first place, regardless of what those annoying people at Starbucks tell you.

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More Collected Wisdom: Welcome to Chicago - An Argument for Understanding (with J. Z. Smith) - Aiming Nowhere at All (with David Brooks) - Sex, Drugs, and Vietnam

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