In which David discusses Wicker Park’s new coffee shop renaissance

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The year: 2007. Filter closes (along with my ex-favorite hot dog joint, Swank Frank) after losing their lease, to be replaced by a Bank of America branch at North/Damen/Milwaukee.

Now, Filter wasn't the only place to get a cup of coffee in Wicker Park, but it was the only coffee shop where it was comfy and cool to just come hang out for a while. (Rather, it was the last one—others had come during the neighborhood's 1990s heyday and since closed down.) The next best option afterward was Marshall McGearty, a concept smoke shop-as-Starbucks owned and operated by the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company, that was friendlier and more comfy than it had any right to be. Naturally it had smoking, and that place shut down early in 2008 after Chicago's restaurant smoking ban took effect.

Consequently, for most of the last two years Chicago's most hipsterrific neighborhood has been without any decent coffee hangouts.

That has now changed.

For starters, Filter is back—after rumored plans to move to the West Loop or Ukrainian Village, they've reopened a couple of blocks down Milwaukee Ave. from their old spot. The new Filter is bigger, brand-new, and conveniently located next to the Copenhagen Cyclery bike boutique. Yet, somehow, it's still absolutely Filter. The chairs are thrift-store, the walls are exposed brick, the coffee is good and the fries are sweet potato.

So that's pretty great. But now there are also two new places to coffee up near the six corners:

  • Buzz: Killer Espresso on Damen, "celebrating artful espresso and small-batch roasters."

  • And The Wormhole, near Filter on Milwaukee, where I'm typing this up, which is another thing entirely.

Some context for The Wormhole: it is Chicago's second 80's-themed coffee shop, after New Wave Coffee in Logan Square. Where NWC is vegan-friendly and focused on neon colors and kitschy music, Wormhole is a different kind of pastiche. There are Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle dolls on the tables and Star Wars stormtrooper mugs on the counter. Next to the front door there is an actual honest to god I shit you not DeLorean from the Back to the Future movies. NWC has a late-80s Sony TV with an NES hooked up to it; Wormhole's TV is from the early 80s, and it has an Atari 2600.

But other than that, and more importantly, The Wormhole seems to be based on something completely different: it reminds me a lot of Ritual Coffee Roasters in the Mission in San Francisco.

For a place that's only been here a week, something about Wormhole feels old and comfortable and lived-in. I'm not sure exactly how long Ritual Roasters has been on Valencia, but it's a study in how to set up a hip-but-comfy neighborhood coffee shop. The chairs are secondhand, but not too shabby, and seem to reflect a singular, very tasteful design sensibility.

The other place, Buzz, just rubbed me the wrong way. It felt like someone's living room in a bad way—cramped, with poorly chosen seats and not enough of them. The coffee was better than fine (one of the baristas is a guy I used to work with at Starbucks, who I can vouch for as someone who really knows good coffee), but it's expensive and maybe not worth staying around to savor. (Also, they have a 1-hour limit on their free Wi-Fi. Filter has a more generous 2 hours, and Wormhole has no limit at all.)

So, yeah, I'm a bit smitten. I didn't think Chicago made places like this anymore; I'm very glad to have been wrong.