Saturday, October 9, 2010
27 West Washington Street, Chicago, IL 60602
After last week’s blog entry, I decided to peruse my rather long list of Chicago java spots to determine where I wanted to go in order to add the next notch to my coffee mug. Comparing that list to the coffeehouses about which I’ve already written, I realized I’ve been exhibiting a north-side bias, almost certainly caused by Northwestern’s arrangement relative to downtown. Rather than plunging straight into the quintessential parts of Chicago, I’ve been skirting the periphery. Perhaps this is because most of the quality coffee around Chicago is found outside of downtown, or perhaps I have yet to scratch the surface in my search for this city’s most satisfying cup.
As a result, I decided to venture this week to LavAzza Café’s Washington Street location to get a taste of the coffee that sustains the average urbanite. About four blocks from Millennium Park, LavAzza is surrounded on all sides by the towering monoliths of office buildings and sweaty multitudes preparing for tomorrow’s Chicago Marathon. From the outside, LavAzza, a 110 year old corporate chain usually found peppering European sidewalks, looks pretty similar to other franchise coffee spots.
Inside, the cafe has a heavy focus on European and hypercontemporary styles—fastidious adherence to their color scheme, lots of stainless steel, and multicolored bucket seats. A spacious dining area and wall-sized window to the street give the interior an impression of openness. Ever a champion of subtlety, I’m a little perturbed by the heavy-handed emphasis on their Italian roots. The clichéd panoramas on the walls and the beret-topped costumes of the baristas are a bit too much for me, but others may find them fun.
LavAzza’s food selection contains much of the typical coffeehouse fare—muffins, sandwiches, scones, and fruit. However, I’m pleasantly surprised to find that they also offer some atypical choices such as quiche and a variety of flavors of gelato. It’s too early in the day for gelato and I’m too much of a man to eat quiche, so I go with the Morning Sunshine muffin, which appears to be filled with carrots, pecans, and other masculine ingredients. They have quite the list of Italian-sounding embellished drinks, but I go with a mug of their Espression drip coffee.
The coffee is very hot and pretty darn good, with a solid base of flavor and low bitterness. However, I’d guess it was roasted awhile ago, and the cold, hard facts are that coffee beans are at their best within about a week and a half of roasting.
Compared with the coffee I’ve encountered at Chicago’s smaller, more artisanal coffeehouses, LavAzza has a tough time matching up. On the other hand, there exists a delicate balance between expanding a company and preserving a high level of quality, and I’d say LavAzza has achieved a rousing success in this regard. As a company with an international presence, LavAzza ranks right at the top of the franchise coffee shops I’ve seen with respect to both quality and bang for the buck.
On the whole, LavAzza makes the customer forget he’s enjoying his coffee at a corporate chain. However, the real challenge they face is in transporting the customer to a land of elegant gondoliers and harmonious operettas and making him forget he’s in the belly of the Windy City.