The Local Joe | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader
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Atomix
1957 W. Chicago | 312-666-2649
$
COFFEE SHOP, VEGETARIAN/HEALTHY | 9 AM-9 PM DAILY

This sunny room furnished with 50s-modern-style tables and chairs doesn't have a huge menu, but who cares when you can design your own sandwich using a grease pencil to mark off options on a laminated card? Ingredients include hummus, cold cuts, and lots of homemade spreads including tapenade, pesto, and garlic-roasted red pepper. Vegans can also order vegan baked goods, veggie chili, or a grilled soy cheese sandwich, and there are plenty of coffee drinks. Atomix is home to a So and So's Button-o-matic, a vending machine that dispenses one-inch buttons designed by local artists. The cafe's now owned by former Seam drummer Chris Manfrin. —Holly Greenhagen

Bellezza Gelato Caffe
3637 N. Harlem | 773-545-1239
$
ICE CREAM, COFFEE SHOP | 1 PM-9 PM TUESDAY-SATURDAY, 5 PM-9 PM SUNDAY | CLOSED MONDAY

Opening a gelateria was a longtime dream for Bellezza Gelato owners Maria DiNunzio and Tim Ashorian, and it's safe to say that the couple's Harlem Avenue shop is a dream come true for us too. When I paid them a visit it was so hot outside that everything was melting, and after a previous customer's order oozed out of her cone in the heat, the guys behind the counter recommended I stick with a cup. Even half melted, however, my scoop of banana-caramel-praline gelato was one of the best I've had outside Italy. My second scoop—butter pecan—was just as good, whole pecans sprinkled liberally throughout. With its wide selection of gelati—for chocolate lovers there are now three different choices, double-Dutch chocolate, dark chocolate-orange, and dark chocolate-raspberry tartufo—Bellezza should quickly become a go-to spot, and the well-prepared coffee (espresso, cappuccino, latte, and Turkish) and pastries—most under a couple bucks—can't hurt either. Don't miss the affogato: gelato with a flavored shot of espresso, topped with whipped cream and an espresso bean. —Sam Kaplan

Bourgeois Pig
738 W. Fullerton | 773-883-5282
$
COFFEE SHOP | 7 AM-10 PM MONDAY-SATURDAY, 8 AM-10 PM SUNDAY

Fifteen years old now, this charming Lincoln Park establishment might easily be mistaken for having been around even longer. Located in an old brownstone, it's true to 60s-coffeehouse form, with creaky hardwood floors, hundreds of newspapers and books lining the shelves, and a menu of homemade soups, salads, sandwiches, and baked goods posted on four huge blackboards. The extensive lineup ranges from a Great Gatsby Club (pesto, bacon, and smoked turkey) to a veggie panini with artichoke hearts and fresh spinach to a daily quiche with a flaky, buttery crust. You can also build your own sandwich or get a half with a cup of soup or salad. The quiet and somewhat unkempt surroundings—an antidote to the antiseptic ambience of newer shops—attract a studious crowd. The pleasant patio was expanded this summer. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Charmers Cafe/Dagel and Beli
1500 W. Jarvis | 773-743-2233
$
COFFEE SHOP | 6 AM-10 PM MONDAY-FRIDAY, 7 AM-10 PM SATURDAY-SUNDAY

Ram on High ("numperpickel bagel, hoked money sham, swiss, tour yoice of choppings"). Fart Smella ("barlic gagel, boast reef, comato, tapers, and lomaine rettuce"). Spoonerisms are all very well in their way, I suppose, but this little deli and cafe goes so nuts with the verbal scramblings that deciphering the offerings just might drive you nuts. Thankfully the place does offer a "translation menu" in plain English. The other gimmick here is that the more-than-25 specialty bagel sandwiches all come steamed, which has an upside (who doesn't like melted cheese?) but also a slight downside—since the process takes about ten minutes, you'll wait a little while for your food. The bagels themselves are from New York Bagel & Bialy, and they come with a wide range of accompaniments, from spicy mayo to olive cream cheese. Whereas Dagel and Beli used to adjoin Charmers Cafe, it's now been merged with it, so Charmers' pastries from Bennison's, vegan baked goods from Sugar and Spice, Homer's ice cream, teas, and superior Metropolis coffee are also available. —Kate Schmidt

Delicious Cafe
3827 N. Lincoln | 773-477-9840
$
COFFEE SHOP, VEGETARIAN/HEALTHY | 7 AM-7 PM MONDAY-FRIDAY, 8 AM-7 PM SATURDAY, 9 AM-4 PM SUNDAY

Husband-and-wife team Chelsea Waldrop and Kevin Porter worked together as baristas for a year before opening this North Center coffee shop with the help of family and friends. There's an extensive menu of specialty coffee drinks and an all-vegetarian lineup of vegan pastries and sandwiches like grilled cheese (with a soy option), grilled peanut butter and banana, and tofu eggless salad. They're also offering Sunday specials like chocolate chip-pecan waffles. —Kate Schmidt

Hoosier Mama Pie Shop
1618½ W. Chicago | 312-243-4846
$
BAKERY, COFFEE SHOP | 8 AM-7 PM TUESDAY-FRIDAY, 9 AM-5 PM SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY, MONDAY

Former Trio pastry chef Paula Haney's four-year rise from farmers' market vendor to Queen of Tarts has been well documented, and this permanent home ought to make every fan more secure in the knowledge that her laboriously created heritage pies can be had five days a week in one spot. From the slim, delicate crispy-topped vinegar chess pie with its subtle hit of acid to the buxom coconut cream with enveloping strata of toasted coconut, there's a rotating seasonal selection of seven pies on hand (out of a repertoire of dozens), available whole or by the slice with a hot cuppa Metropolis. There are also quiche and two savory pies on offer, a pork-apple-sage and a fantastic chicken potpie with tender, juicy irregular knobs of poultry and big chunks of vegetables and potatoes cooked to an apple-y snap. This tiny three-table shop could be to pies what Hot Doug's is to sausage. —Mike Sula

Istria Cafe
1520 E. 57th | 773-955-2556
$
ICE CREAM, COFFEE SHOP | 6:30 AM-8:30 PM MONDAY-FRIDAY, 7 AM-8:30 PM SATURDAY, 7:30 AM-8:30 PM SUNDAY

It's hard to think of a more perfect example of early-21st-century food culture than this bright Internet cafe, full of laptop-using, iPod-wearing U. of C. students yet literally carved into the crumbling urban infrastructure of the South Shore Line. Turns out it was built not by Wi-Fi-seeking dwarves, but by two brothers who named it after their home region in the former Yugoslavia, where coffee culture is a source of local pride. The coffee and espresso, expertly hand-pulled, is Intelligentsia. Panini, the only real lunch offering, are served on a bread that doesn't have quite the crunch you'd hope for, but what's inside (prosciutto and fresh mozzarella, a couple of vegetarian choices) is fresh and flavorful. But the main reason to come here and try to snag one of the few tables is the house-made gelato. Texture-wise, it may seem a little too pliable as compared to authentic European gelato, but the fruit ones taste of real fruit, and the chocolate and hazelnut varieties are dreamily creamy. In the summer, sidewalk tables relieve the cramped interior somewhat. There's a second location in the Hyde Park Arts Center (1530 S. Cornell, 773-324-9660). —Michael Gebert

Kafein
1621 Chicago, Evanston | 847-491-1621
$
AMERICAN, COFFEE SHOP | SUNDAY-THURSDAY 11 AM-1 AM, FRIDAY-SATURDAY 11 AM-2 AM

Despite the influx of chain coffee shops in Evanston, this cozy storefront has remained popular with locals and students alike. The room is a hodgepodge of mismatched couches and art-covered wooden tables, and there's a raised area up front for open mike on Monday nights. Its proximity to the Northwestern campus works in its favor, as does the nice assortment of salads, melts, soups, and ice cream floats, shakes, and sundaes. Multiple vegetarian offerings include chili and a garden burger. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Kopi Cafe
5317 N. Clark | 773-989-5674
$
COFFEE SHOP, VEGETARIAN/HEALTHY | 8 AM-11 PM MONDAY-THURSDAY, 8 AM-MIDNIGHT FRIDAY, 9 AM-MIDNIGHT SATURDAY, 10 AM-11 PM SUNDAY

Unusual Andersonville cafe with world-traveler decor, including clocks displaying the time in Nepal and Jakarta and Balinese masks and puppets hanging overhead. You can sit at one of the hand-painted tables or plop down shoeless on the pillow-covered platform at the front of the room. The menu offers the usual cafe drinks and a mostly vegetarian assortment of sandwiches, salads, and snacks. A small boutique in the rear sells Asian-inspired clothing, crafts, and paraphernalia. —John Norris

Little Branch Cafe
1251 S. Prairie | 312-360-0101
$
COFFEE SHOP, BREAKFAST | 7 AM-4 PM MONDAY-TUESDAY, 7 AM-10 PM WEDNESDAY-FRIDAY, 8 AM-10 PM SATURDAY, 8 AM-8 PM SUNDAY

Tucked into the ground floor of a gleaming South Loop high-rise, this casually modern spot run by fashion designer Soo Choi and her sister Sang is notable for both its good looks and its utter lack of street parking—the cafe seems primarily to serve the culinary needs of neighborhood condo dwellers and the occasional museum campus refugee. Nice aesthetic touches, courtesy of designer/contractor Kevin Heisner, include silky-smooth polished limestone tabletops, chalkboard-painted walls, counters faced with unfinished lumber, and stools made from painted tree trunks. The food is as well designed as the space: a turkey Reuben from the short panini menu was surprisingly tidy, bird, kraut, and cheese smooshed cleanly between slices of marble rye. Also on offer are espresso drinks with Metropolis coffee, Palazollo's artisanal gelato and sorbetto, and smoothies. There's now a full bar as well. —Martha Bayne

The Perfect Cup
4700 N. Damen | 773-989-4177
$
COFFEE SHOP | 6:30 AM-9 PM MONDAY-FRIDAY, 7:30 AM-9 PM SATURDAY, 7:30 AM-8 PM SUNDAY

"Friends don't let friends drink Starbucks" says a bumper sticker posted over the menu board, and after a few visits here you may feel like the staff really are your friends. This bright room at the corner of Leland and Damen attracts a regular crowd of people reading, working, or chatting and regularly showcases local art. Purists might be put off by the fact that the espresso drinks are pressed by machine, not hand, but the plain old coffee is always good. Food offerings are limited to bagels and pastries. —Holly Greenhagen

Smash Cake
2961 N. Lincoln | 773-281-2353
$
COFFEE SHOP, BAKERY, BREAKFAST | 7 AM-7 PM MONDAY-FRIDAY

Smash Cake, a Lakeview cafe with an uninspired standard selection of coffee, pastries, brownies, and cupcakes, plus premade sandwiches and salads, is a kid-oriented space with brightly painted flowers on the walls, a play area, toys, and kiddie tables in addition to the standard-size ones. So it was odd to encounter the barista, a surly bearded guy with tattooed hands, a shaved head, and big gauge earrings who looked like he'd be more comfortable working at Metal Haven. He certainly wasn't very happy about having to explain the contents of the glass case, displayed entirely sans labels or prices, nor was he helpful when I asked for a receipt (impossible once the transaction has gone through, apparently). The cafe is closed Saturdays and Sundays and, judging from the locked door I encountered on my first attempt to visit during regular business hours, at random other times. —Julia Thiel

Star Lounge Cafe
2521 W. Chicago | 773-384-7827
$
COFFEE SHOP | 7 AM-9 PM MONDAY-FRIDAY, 8 AM-9 PM SATURDAY-SUNDAY

The Star Lounge Cafe quenches a variety of thirsts. Packed on even a random Monday evening with friends busying themselves by sipping coffee and playing Scrabble, it also hosts live music occasionally, and there's a very welcoming back patio where you can bring your dog if you want. Prices are fair—$3-$3.50 for espresso drinks, $3 for a bottomless coffee—and the fresh-baked chocolate-chip-and-bacon cookies alone are worth the trip. There's free Wi-Fi and a kids' play area. —Kelly McClure

Swim Cafe
1357 W. Chicago | 312-492-8600
$
COFFEE SHOP, BREAKFAST, VEGETARIAN/HEALTHY | 6 AM-6 PM SATURDAY-MONDAY, 6 AM-10 PM TUESDAY-FRIDAY

Former caterer Karen Gerod serves fresh, organic foods from local and socially conscious vendors—Ineeka Tea, Naked juices and smoothies, and java from Just Coffee—and uses them in her sandwiches, salads, and sweets at this cafe awash in mild, bright shades of aqua and sea foam green. I can think of no more perfect treat for kids who've worked up an appetite across the street in the Eckhart Park pool than a PB&J on Red Hen's scrumptious chocolate bread. A tuna sandwich on pumpernickel gets a kick from capers, avocado, cucumber, and lemon, and a ham-and-Swiss panini was satisfying. By no means miss Gerod's cupcakes. She also bakes her own muffins, cookies, and scones. Swim Cafe is open for dinner from Tuesday through Friday and is BYOB after 6 PM. —Susannah J. Felts

Vella Cafe
1912 N. Western | 773-489-7777
$

BREAKFAST, COFFEE SHOP | 7 AM-3 PM MONDAY-FRIDAY, 9 AM-3 PM SATURDAY | BYO

Note: Vella Cafe is closing August 23, and Bill Kim (Urban Belly) is taking over the space. Sara Voden and Melissa Yen made their reputations at Green City Market, peddling some of the finest sandwiches in Chicago—among them a killer brisket panini and a French toast a la bread pudding. Then they opened this dine-in breakfast-and-lunch storefront, tucked neatly beneath the Blue Line stop at Western. The excellent paninis remain, including a frittata version that's among the best egg sandwiches ever invented, but the menu now includes crepes, soups and salads, and a brunch that's more affordable than its Wicker Park competition and hair-of-the-dog-friendly to boot (drinks include a virgin Bloody Mary). —Nicholas Day

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