When I step into a coffee shop that gets everything right, I step into a subtle alternate reality where I am cooler and more creative, less anxious, more thoughtful. The best coffee shops are remarkably reliable in achieving this effect. What is it about these coffee shops that transports me? What comes from the space itself, the coffee, the food, the staff, the other patrons, what comes from me?

The entrance to Sawada Coffee in Chicago feels like a secret. It’s not. It says “Sawada Coffee” right on the door. But the faded paint of the logo blends into the surrounding graffiti and wheatpastes on the old brick building. The half-face half-skull portrait of owner Hiroshi Sawada is undeniably cool. When I open the door I feel like I’m I’m entering an exclusive club. But I feel like a member. (At least, I assume that is what it feels like. I’ve never been a member at an exclusive club.) The needle that a coffee shop like Sawada threads is that instead of making me feel like I’m not cool enough, it makes me feel cooler.

Through the door and around a corner and Sawada opens up. It’s in a large warehouse space that also contains the excellent Green Street Smoked Meats. The atmosphere is moody and warm. The ceilings are tall and dark. The Sawada portion of the warehouse is raised a half-dozen steps and contains a large central table for communal seating, the bar, and a row of seating along the window. There are skateboards on the walls and a Supreme punching bag. There is stadium seating transitioning down to the lower area containing the many wood tables and benches of Green Street Meats.

Sawada specializes in espresso and matcha drinks, and serves doughnuts from the Doughnut Vault. Their signature drink is the military latte: a matcha latte with cocoa powder, vanilla syrup and a shot of espresso. It’s sounds way overdone. It isn’t. It’s perfect. At least, it’s perfect for me, just like the entry, the atmosphere, the way I can pick through the many seating options and find myself just the right corner that fits my mood. I feel at peace. I feel happy.

In future posts I will dig into the mechanisms that I think create this effect and explore more of my favorite coffee shops to look for common themes. One of the biggest and broadest mechanisms is the all-encompassing vision. Every part of Sawada supports the experience. When I step into Sawada, I feel like I am stepping into an entire world that Hiroshi Sawada has created. Everything is as it should be.