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April 24, 2008

Gadabout—Berry Chill

Frozen yogurt is a craze with cultures, a trend with tang, a fad with flavor—and version 2.0 is finally here.

After three years of playing monkey in the middle with New York and Los Angeles, Chicago has jumped on the natural, non-fat frozen yogurt bandwagon with gusto. Starfruit in Wicker Park markets the yogurt-like, probiotic-chocked Kefir, and Yoberri is master of Lakeview’s frozen-yogurt domain. Red Mango, one of the original yogurt behemoths, will take up residence in Evanston and Naperville within the month. The first to open Chicago’s frozen floodgates, though, was Berry Chill, a “yogurt-couture bar” in Near North that has certainly done justice to its namesake sensation.

Berry Chill embodies the “cool” factor of its product, and not just through its four LCD TV screens or its European-style Smart car for deliveries. Strangely shaped white couches and chairs and a striped aqua interior pull off a very clean, pseudo-futuristic look reminiscent of a Target ad. Equally streamlined service fulfills orders with dangerous efficiency. Berry Chill is also nestled between the Gold Coast and the Loop, the ideal location for attracting the wealthiest and healthiest of Chicagoans.

Unlike the popular chains last heard from during the Reagan administration, like TCBY or I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt, the signature concoction of Berry Chill is not yogurt disguised as an ice-cream replacement. This is not a bad thing. Artificial sweeteners and half-hearted red- or yellow-based flavors that fool nobody have been discarded for a far superior, if pricier, product with very few varieties. Even then, the original yogurt is vastly superior to, for example, the strawberry-banana or chilled-latte takes. It’s a yogurt for the post–Omnivore’s Dilemma world, fully embracing the idea of “all natural” with zero lactose and beneficial bacteria. The yogurt bar even has a blog.

The most noticeable change from the “frozen yogurt” of yesteryear is the powerful tartness that accompanies every flavor. Unlike Sour Patch Kids, however, the yogurt somehow manages to feel refreshingly good. The purported heath benefits, backed up by studies probably sponsored by a shady yogurt cartel akin to Phillip Morris, are numerous and encompass everything from increased metabolism to a heightened immune response. It’s all very reassuring for the person who just paid close to $6 for a medium yogurt. After all, $6 is a small price to pay for living better.

Frozen yogurt 2.0 is also renowned for its wide variety of toppings, and Berry Chill is no exception. Where the cereal bar Cereality perished, the yogurt bar flourishes, bringing to its yogurt almost every topping imaginable. The fresh fruit selection, featuring options as exotic as lychees, will satisfy any fruitarian. There’s also a cheerful nod to local products, such as Milk and Honey granola from Wicker Park or PIE pie crumbles from down the street. Every size includes three different toppings for the price, which makes experimentation irresistible. Any member of the berry family with granola is an automatic win, but be wary of trying to mesh the fatless yogurt with more fat-friendly chocolate chips.

With its great location, trendy vibe, and now the benefit of warmer weather, Berry Chill will definitely be brisk in business for the next few months—at least until Pinkberry and the other large-scale yogurt places swoop in from the coasts for the kill. The yogurt might come as sticker-shock to people who thrive on $1 shakes, but for those who believe in health, or at least happening health, Berry Chill’s version deserves a stop.