It’s been a year and a bit since I moved to Chicago. In that time, my life and my blog posts reflected the personal shit I’ve been struggling with for several years: making sense of the mess of cancelled/call-out culture, figuring out my place in discussions, finding my own voice YET AGAIN, applying for jobs and funding I don’t get, going to conferences, and just trying to fucking breathe in the middle of all of this national and global chaos. Sure, I’ve had some fun with the My Beautiful Obsession posts, but there hasn’t been a whole lot to say here about my multiple therapy sessions per week, about losses and deaths, about my body and Is this actually fucking MENOPAUSE already?! I’ve been calling senators and other government officials, marching and protesting, and fighting. Add to it the RWA bullshit, and ….
But I haven’t wanted to write about any of it.
So that means I’ve mostly just not written… and that some of my usual life-doings that I might’ve blogged about at the time fell by the wayside, too. That includes my experiences with now residing in Chicago. Specifically, finding a new writing and studying spot here.
As I mentioned when I relocated to Boston in the middle of 2017, one of the first things I have to do to settle into a new place is to find a My Spot or two.
It was a struggle in Boston. Interestingly, a lot of the places with decent coffee beverages there weren’t conducive to sitting and writing, or couldn’t translate that into an even semi-decent mocha. Many coffee hotspots or doughnut shops didn’t actually have tables, and were focused on take-away business. Or they were always packed. I found a few places that were good, especially the Boston Public Library reading room! But, in general, I never felt fully settled in Boston, for a variety of personal and local reasons.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when we moved to Chicago at the end of 2018, but I certainly didn’t expect to LOVE it. But I do. I LOVE IT HERE! I love the architecture, and the Art Institute, and the food and restaurants and especially the pizza and the meat, and the way our neighborhood smells like chocolate from the nearby chocolate company.
Especially, to my amazement, I love that I found so many amazing spots to hang out and write and consume mochas or tea, and spend hours over stacks of books and manuscripts.
I didn’t expect that. It was a struggle to find a couple cozy places in Boston (and even then, I had to get there before 10am or there would not be room. Make that 8am if it was near Harvard). But here in Chicago, it’s been the proverbial embarrassment of riches. That means you get to benefit from my adventures with
CHICAGO CAFES AND WRITING SPOTS REVIEWS
As I mentioned with my Boston Questing, there are several key elements that I look for when finding a My Spot spot:
Food and drink. As I’ve said, for me, this includes good mochas, hot chocolate, and/or tea, plus decent, basic baked goods.
Workability. Primarily, access to plugs/outlets, WiFi, deal-able noise levels, and comfy seating/table space.
Amenities. CLEAN. BATHROOMS.
Service. As a former customer service employee myself, I’m okay with “just don’t be a complete dickhead,” but I’ve found I am increasingly fond of places where I get to know the people behind the counter. Like, to the point that I suspect I’m their Norm or something.
Ambiance. Something a little different, unique, or characteristic. Perhaps it’s a historic room or building, or an adjacent book shop, or Cheese Scone Thursdays (God, I miss Afternoon Tease!), or a view.
Let’s dive into Part One!
First off, all of the places mentioned have good-to-great WiFi! Unless a place is very specifically branding itself as smugly “no wireless because we want to promote conversation” or something, that hasn’t been an issue here.
LA Burdick’s. Interestingly, one of the first places I discovered in Chicago was a chocolate shop I used to frequent in Boston. They have a few shops scattered in New England, and they also have, to my great delight, one in Chicago.
While I frequented the Boston ones, both in Harvard and Back Bay, I didn’t consider them top camping-out-and-writing-and-studying spots. First, they have small tables and no outlets. Second, they’re usually pretty busy. However, their hot chocolates, mochas, and pastries are GLORIOUS, so I’d go anyway. It’s also a fab place to meet with visiting friends, just special enough and a good, cozy place for chats.
The one in Chicago, however, has become one of my solid choices for a writing spot. It’s not too busy. It’s bigger, space-wise, than the Boston locations, so even when there are customers, it doesn’t feel crowded. Sure, there’s only one outlet, but, since most of their traffic is walk-in, I can usually snag the table by it. It also has these big, beautiful windows in back that look out into a lovely brick courtyard. The bathroom is clean. The folks are nice. And oh, yes, is that coffee and chocolate good! The only danger is buying too many of their famous Chocolate Mice to take away with you.
Harold Washington Library. I mean, it’s already not the Bates Hall Reading Room at the Boston Public Library, so it’s got that against it. Even the UL at Cambridge wasn’t the Bates Hall Reading Room, for pity’s sake! But it is a beautiful building, and there is the stunning Winter Garden on the Ninth floor.
But as beautiful as it is, the Winter Garden is not an ideal spot for writing or studying for me. First of all, there are maybe 10 tables, so unless you get there when they first open, or are willing to hover for an hour or more waiting for someone to leave, no dice. Second, those tables are in the middle of the space, and are not near any outlets, so you are limited to your computer’s battery time. Again, that sometimes works if it prevents you from dicking around online, but I find it limiting. And really… this space is LOUD. Not only does it echo, but people do not use it for “quiet contemplation,” and there are always more people wandering through talking loudly, too and-
And I’ve actually found that, in general, the library is, ironically, a pretty noisy place. There’s a lot of activity, and they’re always making public announcements, or there are workshops going on. So even on one of the regular floor’s tables, “quiet” is hard to come by. I’ve even reserved one of the study rooms, but that was literally being cloistered in a soulless fluorescent-bulb-lit closet for two hours. I find that rather than camping out at the HWL, I usually go there, get my research/note-taking done, and skedaddle. (What is fun, though, is one of my oldest pals is also named Harold Washington — no relation — so if I’m there, I enjoy messaging him my complaints about his library.) The good news is, there is a ton of food nearby, so I can go get Orange Chicken or broccoli-cheddar soup across the street.
Open Books. Writing and hanging out in a used bookstore used to be my dream scenario. Back when I was in my late teens, the used bookstores in my hometown were everything out of the stereotypes: dusty piles of old tomes, teetering shelves, one absent-minded person behind the counter reading, classical music on a single radio up front, sometimes a cat. If they’d put in a couple tables in the middle of all that, like Open Books has, I’d’ve been in heaven. But of late, the used bookstores I’ve been to have been more community- and child-centric. Which means, even though there is a space for camping out and writing at Open Books, the place is likely to be packed with strollers that block all of the shelves, and that’s before you get to the two dozen kids and their parents there for story-time. That’s great and all… but it doesn’t make for a good writing spot. Not even with headphones.
This is also the place with the dodgiest wireless on the list, too.
Art Institute of Chicago. The first official thing I did when we moved here, after settling into our new place, is get a membership for the Art Institute. I fucking love art museums — which is funny, because I have zero artistic talents — and one of the things I loved most about England is that THE MUSEUMS ARE FREE TO THE PUBLIC. And I’ve banged on about my top two faves — the D’Orsay and the V&A — but the Art Institute of Chicago is a firm third. (Sorry, Met, you’re too goddamned crowded and expensive.)
The cafe here is meh, but there are tables and outlets. The restaurant is also middling, but same. However, as a member (*head toss*), I can access the Members’ Lounge, with its comfy corner chairs, and unlimited supply of tea. Need a break? Fine, wander to look at a few paintings and recharge! Stand in front of the giant Seurat with Morrissey’s “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” in your head in a full-blown existential crisis, or go make out in front of the Chagall windows. Sit in front of the huge windows in the Alsdorf Galleries. Duck downstairs and look at all the miniatures. Pick any one of these as a writing prompt, if you want, and go back to it.
Fairgrounds, Wicker Park. This place may have the best mocha in Chicago. Not only is it made with Vosges chocolate, but they serve it with a chocolate-caramel truffle on a skewer! The place smells like the best kinds of coffee and cinnamon. OH GOD, YUM!
But the Wicker Park location isn’t a great working/camping out spot for me. The bathroom is tiny. The tables are tiny. The outlets are scant. It’s always packed. I mean, for mochas like that, though, you can’t blame the crowds for flocking. It just doesn’t make it the best work spot… which sucks, because I like Wicker Park, but then I end up wandering around and then spending too goddamn much money on junk jewelry at Vintage Underground.
Toni Patisserie & Cafe. This place wasn’t even on my radar until a friend said it was her favorite cafe whenever she visited. I popped in and… what a charming, cozy spot! The coffee is decent, but the baked goods and crepes are delightful. It can get crowded around lunchtime, but that usually doesn’t last long, and you can find an outlet-adjacent table pretty easily. The windows are crammed with plants and things, and it’s just sweet and adorable inside.
Chicago Athletic Association, Drawing Room. Okay. THIS IS WHAT MY ACADEMIC HEART HAS CRAVED. This is what the University Library should have been, what the libraries you couldn’t access because they were at other colleges were. This is where two professors who are going to either plot a murder (or murder-mystery syllabus activity) or plan to research the linguistic forms in Beowulf’s influence on Ezra Pound’s poetry would meet up. This is where some world-weary department chair carries her three satchels of books and papers and things, collapses in a settee by one of the fireplaces, and orders a whiskey, neat, after an exhausting day of meetings.This is where a dreamy, slightly neurotic writer hunches over a laptop for hours, making faces at the computer screen while her fingers fly over the keys. This is where a scholar goes over edits on her article about the influence of ragtime on Debussey, or discusses Millay’s use of the sonnet form with a colleague, or reads that creased copy of The Dancing Wu Li Masters or Lettres de Deux Amans, Habitans d’une petite Ville au pied des Alpes, or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
It’s gray and dismal outside, but in here, that becomes an asset. Even the views of a particularly stark, bleak Chicago looks ten times more beautiful through a dozen paned Gothic windows. Lamps are lit in corners. There are so many places to sit (although not all are close to outlets. And the big table in the middle has them hidden under the table-top, so you have to look), from window-seat nooks to squishy leather sofas in front of the multiple (multiple!) fireplaces. This is also a hotel lobby, though, so there’s activity and noise and some sometimes-sucky music, but it becomes part of the cozy background instead of the jarring interruptions at the HWL.
So, sometimes I’m here writing smut instead of studying Schopenhauer’s influence on Nietzsche. No matter. More and more, I’ve been dragging my pile of reading (and yes, I’m tackling Ulysses again, so there, I am v. intellectual!) or journal articles or fiction notes to one of the dark, polished tables here and camping out all day. THIS PLACE IS AMAZING. You can order food, although it can be expensive, but it’s really good, and there are several “small plates” options. You can order stuff at the Fairgrounds (!!!) downstairs, including that truffle mocha, and bring it upstairs. There is a Shake Shack. (I’m actually writing this blog here right now, and across the table from me is a student who has set up a whole plastic chips-and-salsa thing next to her laptop, so apparently you can bring your own food in, too.)
I’m going to order an Old Fashioned this time around and see how it is….
Mindy’s Hot Chocolate/Revival Food Hall. Mindy’s was the first place I checked out as a potential writing spot, simply because it’s listed as the best hot chocolate in Chicago. And it IS pretty good (but so is Burdick’s). The actual location, though, is more of a restaurant than a cafe, and it takes a combo of El + long walk to get there. So the original spot hasn’t become a Writing Spot.
The Revival Food Hall, however, has a Mindy’s there. Writing in Food Halls is fun, but chaotic and noisy, yet now, for me, it has become for me an intrinsically Chicago experience. New Food Halls are opening (and closing) all over our neighborhood, and while the selections can be a mixed bag and outlets are usually sparse, the communal feel and airy space is nice. Also, you can get tacos, poke, charcuterie, and masala dosa all in one spot.
Just don’t spill any spicy aioli on your books or computer if you do, though.