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April 15, 2005

Get a Life - 4/15/05

I like to people-watch. I love to sit and observe (and sometimes listen to) the characters in a place. There are so many personalities, and I am sometimes envious of Harriet the Spy, who could devote countless prepubescent hours to this game.

Like Harriet, I people-watch better when I am alone. When I decided to go to Filter for a little study session on Tuesday, I was initially disappointed that I couldn't find anyone to tag along with me. A car ride to Bucktown is the perfect opportunity for a little catching up, and, like most people I know, I feel like I don't get to spend nearly enough time with my friends.

As I peered through a wall of windows into the dimly lit coffee shop, my disappointment dissipated. This was going to be some damn good people-watching, and if I was accompanied by a friend and a conversation, it would have been a wash.

Filter stretches across one of the most confusing intersections in Chicago. It has entrances on both the Milwaukee and North Avenue sides of the crazy Damen-Milwaukee-North maze. The place is packed with as many people as there are places to rest one of their basic white mugs. Most of the Starbucks-style tables seat just one or two and are positioned conveniently near power outlets, but vintage couches and end tables are peppered throughout as well. The lampshades and coffee tables look like they're straight out of the furniture collection in the basement of Ragstock. An exposed brick wall separates the counter from the seating, and the remaining sage and maroon walls are adorned with oil paintings.

A girl in a muscle T-shirt screen-printed with a tuxedo motif greeted me at the coffee bar. The drink menu was lengthy: coffee drinks, tea freezes, smoothies, thai iced coffees, bubble tea. Overwhelmed, I ordered a café au lait. Adjusting her rainbow sweatband, the girl assured me that my drink was not boring. Vanilla lattes with decaf espresso are boring, but almost nobody orders café au lait anymore.

The place is self-consciously cool, and I like it for that. A potato, tomato, onion, green pepper, and cheese breakfast offering is dubbed "Hipster Hash," dismissing any pretense that Filter doesn't have to try to be hip.

According to the food menu, breakfast is served "the whole lovely day," which means until midnight Monday through Saturday. The offerings are comforting but fairly typical: omelets, breakfast burritos, and pancakes. For lunch and dinner, there is an array of sandwiches from a classic PB&J to a tofu Reuben. While these may be indispensable for a famished studier, the drinks are the real stars.

Baristas create their own concoctions, which are then displayed artfully in chalk above the counter (à la Uncle Joe's). Though there are ample coffee-based samplings like the "Where's the Stick?" caramel apple latte, many of the specialties appeal to customers without a hankering for the coffee bean. As threatening as "Satan in a Blanket" sounds, the combination of chai, soy milk, cider, and loads of cinnamon is warming in a non--burning-pits-of-hell way. On the flipside, the mixture of hot chocolate, banana and coconut syrup, marshmallows, and shredded coconut that make up "Stevie's Wonder" is as close as possible to heaven-in-the-liquid-form.

Filter is loud. The music dulls nearby conversations, and Wednesdays mean open-mic night. At Filter, distraction is certainly an option, but it is not a requirement. The noise of strangers is different from the noise of casual acquaintances. Sometimes you want to be able to do your work without sporadic greetings from your friends. There are plenty of coffee shops on campus, but some days you just want to feel too cool for school.

Address: 1585 North Milwaukee Avenue

Phone: (773) 227-4850

Directions:

Via CTA: Take CTA bus #55 Garfield Westbound to the Red Line. Transfer to Red Line towards Howard to North/Clybourn. Transfer to CTA bus #72 North Avenue Westbound to Damen/Milwaukee. Walk southeast on Milwaukee to 1585 North Milwaukee Avenue.

Via car: Take 90/94 West. Exit at North Avenue. Turn right onto North Avenue. Filter is on the left before the intersection of Damen and Milwaukee.