Hand-pulled espresso and plenty of inspiration at Café Descartes
    The exterior and interior of Descartes Coffee. Photos by the author / North by Northwestern.

    Writers’ Spaces is a series that reviews — you guessed it — spaces for writers. Whether writing is your lifeblood or you got stuck in Intro to Fiction, check out the best (and worst) places to practice your craft.

    “I drink hand-pulled espresso, therefore I am.”

    Yes, at Descartes Coffee, espresso becomes the basis of existence. And lots of people come here to think, to drink, and to be. Since it’s located in the Loop at Michigan and Wacker, Descartes Coffee (commonly known as Café Descartes) attracts an interesting mixture of tourists and regulars. Whether you sit in the window facing Michigan Avenue or choose a chair to eavesdrop on neighboring tables in comfort, you won’t be scrambling for material. The first time I went, I was privileged to overhear a heated debate on which was the “maximum of sodomy,” hot dogs or donuts. Hot dogs won.

    So you go to Descartes and order a drink…voila, you are. Now that you exist, you need things like food, a bathroom and maybe some good music. Here is where the place falls a bit short. Disregarding its namesake’s theories on Dualism, Café Descartes provides more food and space for thought than it does bodily sustenance. Then again, if you’re an aspiring writer, it’s a good idea to learn how to survive mainly on coffee. With the quality caffeine of Café Descartes coursing through your veins, you just might find inspiration.

    True, there isn’t really a menu to speak of, but the liquid items are meant to be the stars of the show. If you’re feeling bold, spring for the $5 Oatmeal Latte. This much-lauded specialty is exactly what it sounds like: oatmeal on the bottom, latte on top. So if you’re ever in need of a hearty breakfast in a cup, it’s only a three-hour round trip ride between Evanston and the Loop to pick one up before class. In all seriousness though, with the Intercampus and now the Saturday shuttle, there’s more opportunity to get out and about in Chicago, which is what all Northwestern students wish they did more of, right? And you have to take a coffee break at some point.

    If you do find yourself spending an extended amount of time at Descartes, here are some tips: Chipotle (read: bathroom) is across the street, and if you’re picky, you might want to bring the iPod — they played three Switchfoot songs in a two-hour period.

    In the end, Café Descartes is there when you need a break from the busyness of downtown Chicago. With a comfortable, clean décor and some hand-pulled espresso for rejuvenation, it’s as good a place as any to bring your work and ideas. And while you watch, listen and attempt to pen down truths about mankind, mounted portraits of history’s greatest thinkers watch over you. No pressure.

    327 N. Michigan Ave
    Chicago, IL 60611


    • Menu: B-
    • Coffee: A
    • Ambience: A-
    • Accessibility: B
    • Overall: B+


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    Jordan Shuler, Nov. 13, 2008