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February 25, 2008

The Weary Epicurean—February 26, 2008

I have always appreciated a good coffee shop. The best of them combine a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere, high-quality barista work, and good food into a synergistic whole—an enterprise that can both cheer and perk you up simultaneously. I don’t think I could have made it through high school without my local café.

By far the best in Hyde Park, particularly when judged purely on the basis of coffee quality, has to be Istria Café, located at East 57th Street and South Lake Park Avenue underneath the Metra tracks. Intelligentsia-brand coffee, nearly always roasted less than a week before used, and ground to perfection, is the key to their success. If you care about good coffee, this is the only place worth visiting around here. The dedicated baristas really know their business, too: Each shot of espresso is pulled precisely long enough for thick, perfect crema. The little wafer of chocolate served with each drink is a nice touch, too, as are the gelato and panini stands. This is a very nice spot to finish off an essay (free wi-fi with every purchase), or to polish off a purchase from Powell’s Bookstore, located just across the street.

On campus, I love the comfortable chairs and the wide selection of local restaurant food in Hallowed Grounds, though I can’t really say much for the coffee. It stinks; there’s really not much to say on that score. But I always run into friends there, and the pool tables are decent—and frankly, a good social scene is just as critical a part of the make-up of a good coffee shop as good coffee.

The Divinity School Café does much better on beverage service. Their hot chocolate is especially delicious, and it’s handy to be able to grab a hot sandwich for cheap right near Harper and Cobb. But it’s very hot down there, and I can’t always find a place to sit. I’ll often pick up a hot chocolate there and then relocate to Cobb Coffee Shop to drink it. The music they play in Cobb is eclectic and fun, the food and cold drink selection is good, and I can always find somewhere to work. Thank you, ORCSA, for providing such a handy chill zone!

The Classics Café is another excellent decompression chamber, handily located on the second floor of the Classics building. Again, let’s not dwell on the weak coffee stewing itself to death for hours in the little push-lever jugs by the register—they’re obviously beside the point. The point is sitting in a lovely, high-backed armchair, reading Kierkegaard, and checking out the lovely ladies of literature who are seemingly always to be found there. Also, the cookies are very good.

Unfortunately, the only other non-chain option within walking distance of campus is Third World Café at East 53rd Street and South Kimbark Avenue. I have to say, it’s probably the worst-run coffee shop I’ve ever been to. For research purchases, I went by this morning to get a cappuccino and a bagel to go; I clocked six minutes and thirteen seconds—from the time I ordered, not from the time I walked in—before my not-toasted bagel and burnt-bean cappuccino were handed over. I am also aware that some people find it acceptable to serve bagels open-faced; I am not such a person, unless the bagel is served with lox. But you couldn’t pay me to order raw fish from people too inept to smear soft cheese on bread in less than five minutes.

Starbucks and Einstein Bros. are, well, a Starbucks and an Einstein. Starbucks coffee is at least strong and sweet, though the beans are universally burnt and the service is occasionally poor. I really have no complaints about our neighborhood’s location, at East 55th Street and South Woodlawn Avenue—it’s just a Starbucks. Einstein Bros., also, will feed you in a pinch. I’ve scarfed down many a cheddar and broccoli soup there, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. But of course, the coffee is stale and over-cooked from sitting over a heating element for so many hours. I’d actually rather fill up at Valois Cafeteria, on East 53rd Street and South Lake Park Avenue, or at Salonica Restaurant, on East 57th Street and South Blackstone Avenue. Both serve surprisingly decent coffee—if only they weren’t so far away from campus. But that’s the nature of the beast, really: Coffee shops have to be convenient, or there isn’t much point to them. At least both Einstein and Starbucks deliver on that count.