Kafein has a European feel.Photo by Tom Benz

When Peter Abraham bought Kafein last September, he wanted to keep what was best about the café yet also put his own stamp on it. The coffee shop, located at 1621 Chicago Ave., had been a local institution since 1991 but was in need of a makeover. He completely remodeled the bathroom, made improvements on the floor and stage, repainted the walls a more neutral color and generally spruced up the whole establishment.

Still, he did not want to change its essential character. “When we were closed for the work, people would come by and express their concern we would change it too much,” he said. “But I think they were happy with the result.”    

Kafein retains the look and feel of a classic independent coffeehouse: lots of vintage wood, bookshelves, decorative fireplace, a European feel with paintings of Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” and Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” The central figure of each holds a cup of java.

Mr. Abraham’s background in the restaurant business stretches back more than 25 years to when he was a busboy at the City View Snackshop on Chicago’s northwest side. He later moved up to being a manager at a French restaurant called Alouette in Highwood. Then he ran his own restaurant – the St. Clair Grill in Chicago’s Streeterville – from 1994 to 1998.

For more than a decade he entered the corporate sphere, working in pharmaceuticals and retail. Then, as he said, “the café fell into my lap.” A client of his wife, the former owner of Kafein, expressed interest in selling Kafein, and Mr. Abraham could not resist getting back into the business. 

The café attracts many students drawn by its late hours (open until at least midnight), cerebral atmosphere and casual style. Music tends to be on the quieter side, with the selections not intruding on those who have come to work on their laptops, wanting to escape from their offices and libraries and dorms.

But patrons of all ages, including couples or families visiting the university for the weekend, can all get comfortable sampling its many confections. One finds Trivial Pursuit cards at the tables and a mix of booths and cushioned chairs, reminders of a time before this kind of ambience became fashionable in more upscale emporiums. And Kafein features excellent table service customers will not receive at Starbucks.

Monday evenings feature an open mic for music and poetry, and Kafein was recently named one of the top five venues for open mic stand-up comedy in Chicagoland. The atmosphere is welcoming for the 15-minute segments hosted by musician Brandon Cummings. Comedians try out new material. Hobbyists and others breaking into their fields bring their instruments and voices and verses, always without a cover charge.  

The menu has not changed much (except for the specials, which vary daily) and still has a wry, whimsical tone. The ever-popular shakes have names like “Nutty Professor,” Albino Grasshopper” and “Rock the Sham.” There are always multiple cakes and pies and a limited selection of sandwiches to choose from. Mochas and lattes have names like “Tree Hugger,” “Tuxedo,” “Mintlicious” and “Operetta.”

There are “Zombies” for the intrepid or at least very sleepy – three shots of espresso, coffee, steamed milk and whipped cream – though Mr. Abraham said customers seldom get all the way to the bottom. There are also the fictional “pot brownies” – an old joke – followed by the words “You wish” in the price column.  

The main beverage is the Rousseau brand from Philosophy Coffee, located in Forest Park. It is locally roasted at a longer, lower temperature for a distinctive taste. Specialty coffees include macchiato, con panna, and cappuccino.

“I like to try new items,” Mr. Abraham said. “It’s trial and error, and you never quite know what might catch on.” For example, he is considering protein shakes, smoothies and “boosts,” the latter consisting of muscle-enhancing whey added to other drinks. 

Mr. Abraham said he cannot really compete with the chains, like Peet’s across the street, but does not feel he really has to. Given the town’s love of coffee and inexpensive gathering places other than bars, he feels there is room for all of them. 

Kafein has been at 621 Chicago Ave. a long while but is still evolving. It is a spot that could just as well be in Paris or London – a place to think and talk about sports or boyfriends or bosses or the state of the world and watch others pleasantly do the same thing.