Sol Cafe // Chicago, Illinois
After spending a couple years living less than a mile away from what I lovingly refer to as Chicago’s coffee corridor – where some of the best coffee spots in all of the Midwest are located – I, sadly, moved north. The likes of Passion House, Dark Matter, Buzz: Killer Espresso, The Wormhole and Halfwit, Gaslight, Intelligentsia, and Counter Culture’s training lab were all within a stone’s throw from my front door. And, oh, how I drank all of their coffee and ate their delicious pastries and took up valuable real estate on their couches and chairs and barstools watching YouTube in their establishments.
Then, I moved to the barren landscape of Chicago’s northern-most neighborhood, Rogers Park. And I never drank coffee again.
Not really, but I’m certainly spending less money at coffee shops.
See, Rogers Park is sort of an up-and-coming neighborhood. At least it thinks it is. While this part of Chicago is mostly residential and home to the most diverse population of Chicagoans, it’s also experiencing a small boom (maybe more like a pop!) in the local business scene. It seems like every other month for the past year that I’ve been living here, a new locally-owned small business opens its doors.
Even the local coffee landscape has vastly improved in the past several months with the addition of two new shops. Whereas, at one time, knuckle-dragging Rogers Parkers could only choose from the aptly-named Common Cup (there is nothing, after all, extraordinary about their coffee or service), the all together overly-ambitious Pillars Social Cafe (which has since been converted into an all together overly-ambitious fine Italian dining affair called Ciao Bella), and the underperforming Stella Espresso Company (which, in all honesty, should have been much more special than it actually was; before closing their doors for good in late January 2013, Stella was a pretty little shop on Devon Avenue and they were the only shop in all of Chicago to feature Kickapoo Coffee Roasters; however, due to poor management and a lack of passion for coffee, they are now gone).
Now, however, Rogers Park has evolved and, along with it, its coffee! Now Rogers Parkers can proudly walk upright, with their head in the air and their shoulders thrust back as they walk into two new shops – Ellipsis Coffeehouse (which, technically, is in Lakeview – but rests on the Rogers Park/Edgewater border so I’m claiming it) and, the subject of today’s scrutiny, Sol Cafe.
Mere steps away from the Howard Red/Purple/Yellow line stop sits Sol Cafe. A completely unassuming storefront surrounded by a hodgepodge menagerie of other completely unassuming storefronts. If you’re driving down Howard looking for Sol, blink once and you’ll miss it. Sol doesn’t have flashy signage or neon lights in their windows or anything, really, that catches the eye. Just a modest white banner with their logo that reads “NOW OPEN”. Nothing really differentiates it from the other businesses that surround it.
Conversely, as aforementioned, Rogers Park is the most diverse neighborhood in all of Chicago, and, in this specific part of Rogers Park, that sentiment is amplified to the nth degree. Within a few blocks, you can walk from the suburban sprawl of a shopping center (parking lots? in the city??), to the hustle and bustle of a major public transit terminal, to a derelict stretch of sidewalk that is nearly covered in litter, to a city park, to the beautiful lakefront – all in a span of a quarter mile. And in that quarter mile you’ll bump into all varieties of people from all walks of life.
Unfortunately for Sol, their immediate vicinity suffers from a bad image. It’s no secret that crime is rampant around Howard Street, particularly in very certain pockets. Knowing that ahead before heading to the area certainly colors it in a certain light, but promise me when I assure you that if you look past the prejudice/bias, you’ll find visiting Sol a delight.
Walking into Sol, as you can see from the pictures above, is nothing like its unassuming entry might lead you to believe. Inside is a warm, homey, cozy, rustic, organic interior that absolutely makes you feel at peace. The lights hanging down from the high-vaulted ceiling are encased in mason jars and burlap coffee bags, the rusty piping sticking out of the walls has been transformed and repurposed into book shelves, a portion of exposed brick wall hosts little trinkets and knick-knacks and do-dads that you’d find in your grandpa’s den, a comfortable couch rests against the wall next to a makeshift library, and even the menuboard is made of piecemeal wood scraps.
I should’ve come here before I moved into my new apartment – my decorating scheme would have been much different if I had seen this place first.
Aside from the really cool look of the place, Sol also serves up some pretty good coffee. While they started off as one of Bow Truss‘s first wholesale cafe accounts (if not the first) (they also serve an espresso (called Sol Espresso Blend, appropriately) that was roasted specifically for them by Bow Truss and which has a smooth, sweet butterscotch flavor), they now alternate between Bow Truss and Passion House. In the past couple of weeks, when visiting Sol, I’ve tried Bow Truss’s Canopy Blend and Passion House’s PH Balance, and that’s a pretty cool thing; a lot of shops around town will only feature one certain coffee from one certain roaster and that’s what you get. Offering a bit of variety and changing up the pace will certainly help to expand their customers’ palates.
Then, once their customers do get more acquainted with quality coffee, of course, Sol will be able to give their Fetco a rest and introduce a slow pour bar – while most slow pour bars employ the tried and true Hario V60, I feel like Sol might be more of a Chemex or Clever sort of environment.
And, really, that’s my only complaint of Sol Cafe. The staff is very friendly, the pastries (from Bennison’s Bakery in Evanston) are awesome, the environment is chill, the business as a whole is heavily involved in their community – it’s the sort of place in which I could spend an awful lot of time, whiling away the hours and sipping coffee. Once Sol abandons their reliance on pre-brewed batches of coffee and start intensively focusing their efforts on fresh, high-quality single-serve brews, they’ll be a shop that rivals some of the best in Chicago.
They’re just about there as it is.