Metropolis Coffee Company
1039 W. Granville
Coffee geeks evaluate their brew on subtleties that often escape the rest of us: mouthfeel, finish, balance, acidity. Naturally the owners of Edgewater's Metropolis Coffee Company, one of the few java shops in the city that roast beans on the premises, are tuned in to all that stuff. But they also practice quality control in a way that's more accessible to the casual coffee drinker: most of the baristas are trained in latte art, the art of creating elaborate designs in espresso-based drinks. These aren't hearts drawn with a straw a la Dunkin' Donuts, but precise, leaflike creations made with milk and the espresso's own crema, or foam.
To demonstrate, Metropolis co-owner Tony Dreyfuss pulls a fresh shot, decants it into a white porcelain cup, and pours in milk in a quick, thin stream, jiggling the pitcher as he goes. With a few shimmies of his wrist, he creates an intricately scaled pattern, with white tendrils delicate yet distinct against the caramel-colored coffee. If the customer drinks carefully (and doesn't stir), the pattern will stay put all the way down to the last sip.
The designs aren't just for show. If the espresso doesn't have enough crema or the milk isn't steamed properly, the pattern won't turn out. "It forces the barista to pay attention to the variables that go into a good drink," Tony says. And, of course, it pleases the customers: "You hand it to someone, and instantly they recognize it's not McCoffee."
Tony opened Metropolis just over a year ago with his father, Jeff. Since then, the cafe's reputation has grown exponentially. "We're only one year out and our growth seems to be pretty phenomenal--roughly 20 percent a month," Jeff says. Metropolis also supplies coffee to about 20 establishments, including restaurants such as Crofton on Wells and M. Henry and coffee shops like Beans & Bagels in Ravenswood. Wholesale business has doubled in the past two months.
The vibe inside the shop is elegant but comfy. Customers curl up with laptops and lattes on the expansive couches, and rotating art installations (recently black-and-white photos of whirling dervishes) hang on the mustard-yellow walls. Study groups huddle together, chatting over their notebooks and taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi access. On the street outside, the atmosphere is a little grittier. A few street people hang around the Granville el stop, and the sidewalk is scattered with more than the usual urban detritus--empty Cheetos bags, ancient wads of gum, old CTA transfers. Tony recently overheard a local prostitute announce: "There's no begging on Granville. There's just pimping, ho'ing, and hustling."
Metropolis takes its name from the ancient Greek concept of polis, or city-state, which Tony (a former philosophy major) interprets as "community." He and Jeff want the cafe to serve as a gathering place for people from a cross section of incomes and backgrounds. The shop draws students from Loyola, cabdrivers, senior citizens from the condos on nearby Sheridan Road, and neighborhood immigrants from a cornucopia of countries--India, Russia, Pakistan, Poland. "You have the ages, the ethnicities, the colors," Jeff says. "I want to keep a high comfort level for absolutely anybody who walks in that door."
He and Tony have an additional mission in mind: to introduce Chicagoans to a different standard of coffee. "We're a small-batch artisan roaster," Tony says. "We pay incredible attention to the minutiae of roasting. We roast each bean directly to its sweet spot. Starbucks, they just roast the hell out of it." Recently Tony got the chef at Ethiopian Diamond to teach him how to pan-roast beans the Ethiopian way. He hasn't done it at Metropolis yet, but he's tried the method out at home. "It was really cool," he says, "but it really gets the house stinking. My stuff smelled even more like coffee than usual."
When ordering coffee beans, the Dreyfusses buy only as much as they need for a three-week period. "Freshness is really the most important thing," Tony says. The roaster stands in the middle of the shop, so customers can inhale the dark, rich, sweet aroma. When roasting, Jeff and Tony meticulously monitor the temperature and the amount of air to which the beans are exposed, adjusting as necessary to manipulate acidity, body, aroma, and flavor. Immediately after roasting, the beans are packaged in heat-sealed bags that offer an oxygen-free environment; they then rest for 48 hours to release carbon dioxide and allow the flavor to "settle," says Tony. At Metropolis, beans are always sold within seven days of roasting. After that, any unsold beans are donated to Chicago Uptown Ministry, a church, shelter, and resource center for the homeless. Tony says some places keep their roasted beans for up to 90 days: "I've tasted three-month-old beans, and they taste really flat to me." The Dreyfusses' signature espresso is called Red Line, a light- to medium-bodied "secret blend." Jeff's favorite house blend, however, is the Mojo, a combination of "very exotic, very funky" Yemenese mocha and aged, earthy Indonesian java.
The notion of opening the shop had been percolating since at least 1999, when Tony was managing a Peet's Coffee and Tea shop in Portland and Jeff was an Indonesian-language professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. Jeff began his own coffee education when he befriended the head roaster at legendary Seattle coffee shop Caffe Vita. "I had never used my hands for anything in my life," Jeff says, but he was quickly hooked on the manual intricacies of roasting and brewing. In 2001 Tony and his wife moved to Chicago to be closer to her family; in 2002 father and son bought a roaster; and about a year after that, Jeff and his wife moved to Chicago to help start the business. Metropolis opened its doors on December 20, 2003. It was "the worst possible time to open, to the nanosecond," Tony says, since the college students who would become a big part of the shop's customer base had gone home for the holidays.
A year later, they have regulars who trek all the way from Hyde Park and Winnetka. "You have to drive past quite a few coffee shops to get to us," Tony notes. So far, at least, they're not worried about competition from chains like Starbucks. Metropolis offers much that the chains don't, such as weekly film showings (recently David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner and Fritz Lang's Metropolis) on a pull-down screen, frequent live jazz and bluegrass, and discussions moderated by the Socrates Cafe Society on topics such as "What is a good life?" Then, too, a chain opening up next to an independent sometimes skews sales in the latter's favor, because many customers take pride in supporting the little guy. "If a Starbucks were to open next door to us, we think it would help us. Not that they would," Tony says. "They're afraid of the pimping, ho'ing, and hustling on Granville."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.