There are two kinds of coffee bar in the Loop: the Chicago-local Intelligentsia; and everyone else. Although service got off to a rocky start last month at Intelligentsia’s new Randolph Street store (between Wabash and Michigan), today the morning rush is no longer lethargic, the coffee still fulfills like a legal crack hit, and in a month’s time I haven’t had to hear about the sex lives of the staff.
An odd thing to fear from your local coffee bar staff. Unless, like me, you used to frequent the Starbucks on Madison Street, two blocks directly south of the new Intelligentsia, but a whole world away once you walk in the door. My old coffee haunt for the first year that I lived downtown, I frequented the Madison Starbucks because it had good hours. Unlike the rest of its downtown corporate brethren, the Madison store stayed open late evenings and all weekend, hours that I, as a downtown local, could be counted on to come by for a cup of caffeine when nothing else was open.
Given that I didn’t have much consumer choice in the matter, I suppose that’s why I put up with the endless restroom line of vagrants and surly CTA bus drivers lined up back through the seating area waiting to pee, whose absence would probably put the store out of business. Or the illumination in the back half of the store, dark enough to disallow reading, but, in all fairness, judging by the number of times I saw homeless people taking a nap in the shadows, a useful social-service amenity nonetheless.
Annoyances truly, but still not enough to break me out of my Starbucks stupor to give Intelligentsia more than a passing glance when it opened late last spring. What was enough, however, was the Saturday morning I sat down with my coffee in the Madison Starbucks, just far enough away from the CTA-homeless pee-break conga line for personal comfort, only to be treated to a five-minute tirade between a uniformed Starbucks employee and his friend, both standing in the middle of the store and within full customer earshot, of how they both considered themselves “declittified” because they hadn’t “gotten any motherfucking clit” lately, “know what I’m sayin’, dog?”
The two free drink coupons that arrived in my mailbox from Starbucks were not exactly what I had in mind when I reported the incident. An apology maybe, perhaps verbal, a “this will never happen again in my store” telephoned to the number I included on the copy of the complaint letter that I hand delivered to the store manager. Nothing tearful, just some embarassment would have sufficed. Or anything that hinted on the existence of a chain of command or a responsible party, really. Though a little groveling wouldn’t have hurt anybody. No matter. I’d never be able to gulp down another macchiato in that store without musing on whether the staff was finally getting any.
So, drawn in by its similar, long, downtown resident-friendly hours, I changed my morning coffee run to the new Intelligentsia. But with no vagrant problem, bat-cave lighting, or surly bathroom lineup, I lost all bearings of what a Loop coffee bar was supposed to be. Needing something to bitch about, last month I bitched about the morning service. And while that early service deserved the bitching, it’s better now. And, thanks to Intelligentsia, my idea of what a downtown coffee bar should be is much improved, too.
The new standard for downtown, Intelligentsia on Randolph is cozy but not small, well lit, attractively designed and furnished, has amazing hours, high-end equipment, an over-trained staff, and a drink menu more befitting a European cafe than a Seattle corporate caffeine juggernaut, meaning a menu based around small cups of hot coffee, not big gulps of iced sugar.
Is the service as fast as Starbucks during the morning rush? No. It can’t ever be that. High-end manual espresso machines like those at Intelligentsia are by definition slower, but they produce a better shot. And if your drink isn’t perfect, right down to the design atop your foam, the baristas will make it again. And while you’re waiting, you’ll do so amid a smartly designed modern space, not a dimly lit restroom dungeon. And, if nothing else, the coffee is better. Much better. Crack better. Crawl-across-the-desert better.
The bottom line? If you want to see what Starbucks probably used to be like, many moons ago when they were still a principled little Seattle upstart, visit Intelligentsia on Randolph. There, the coffee-lover’s caffeinated dream is still very much alive. Bring a book. Bring a laptop. Bring a friend. If you live downtown, meet your neighbors, there are quite a few of us hanging there now.
For the sake of comparison, feel free to visit Starbucks on Madison, too. In that case, bring a wet wipe. And don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.