Memory Lane: Coffee Talk

Grab a cup, take a seat and stay a while

Madelyn Childress and Matthew Childress perform at open mic night at Espresso Royale Beyond traditional coffee houses, Illinois alumni have also gotten their cups of joe at diners (Merry-Ann’s, Aunt Sonya’s, Uncle John’s, IHOP), delis (Bubby and Zadie’s), grocery stores (Strawberry Fields) and the Illini Union Cafeteria. Above: Espresso Royale at Goodwin & Oregon. (Image courtesy of Illini Media)
Grab a cup, take a seat and stay a while

It’s wintertime at the U of I—snow falling on Altgeld Hall, the Quad’s sidewalks slick with ice, the air so brisk even the Alma Mater looks cold—and just off campus, students are settling in at their favorite coffee houses, for a day of study and scones, and cup after cup of that beautiful bean.

Whether they like it plain-old-black, flavored or frappéd, there are more than two dozen cafés where they can get their fix, from chains like Starbucks to indies such as BrewLab.

Still, many students rely on a few old standbys—local institutions that have been caffeinating Illini for decades.

Perhaps the most beloved is the Espresso Royale at the corner of Goodwin and Oregon, where Monica Astorga, ’20 AHS, MPH ’20 AHS, had “the best lattes I’ve ever had,” and, a quarter-century earlier, Scott Barnas, ’94 FAA, MME ’05 FAA, often burned the midnight oil. “It was open 24 hours back then!” he says.

Another long-running favorite is Caffe Paradiso, with its artsy clientele and incredible sandwiches. Dan Hill, ’07 LAS, remembers it as a good place “to learn about smoking cigarettes and reading Dostoevsky, and getting to know other kids who were smoking and reading Dostoevsky.”

Interior shots of Caffe Paradiso and the Kaeser Room

Caffe Paradiso (Image courtesy of Illini Media) and Kaeser Room (Image courtesy of UI Archives)

Sadly, not all coffee houses are meant to stand the test of time. For every Paradiso, there are scores that live on only in memory.

Many alumni from the 1960s and ’70s are still mourning the loss of places like Turk’s Head, Prehn’s-on-Oregon and the YMCA’s Kaeser Room.

Alumni from more recent decades have their own, now departed, favorites.

For many, the best of the best was the Espresso Royale at the corner of 6th and Daniel, which was torn down in 2019 to make way for a new development.

Mark Burns, ’95 ENG, recalls going there for the first time. “Having no idea what to get, I got an espresso,” he says, “because it’s in the name. When I got my drink [in that little cup], I started looking for the rest of it!”

Sarah Leemans, ’98 LAS, loved Espresso’s lit-up “café” sign that you could see from blocks away and the jazz music, such as Billie Holiday, that baristas played on the sound system. “I miss that place terribly!” she says.

exteriors shots of coffee shops

Espresso at 6th & Daniel (Image courtesy of Illini Media); The Daily Grind (Image courtesy of Illini Media); and Ye Olde Donut Shoppe (Image Champaign County Historical Archives)

Another place alumni miss terribly is The Daily Grind, the Campustown mainstay that ground a dozen varieties of coffee beans on site and featured light and dark roasts of the day. Lise Herbin Schleicher, ’89 BUS, MA ’92 LER, was partial to their steamed eggs, while Rori Rozen Wherley, MS ’84 MEDIA, went for the ambience. It had “the best atmosphere to chat or study,” she says.

Many other alumni over the decades have favored places on and around Green Street, including Ye Olde Donut Shoppe, Mister Donut, Spudnuts and Moonstruck.

Green Street also was home to Bar Guiliani, a favorite among elder millennials for its gelato and Americanos. Jason Norris, ’08 ENG, remembers that it permanently closed the night before his graduation, giving him the bittersweet experience of saying goodbye to both his favorite café and his college career during the same weekend. “There was a closing party,” he says, “and I got too drunk and over-caffeinated—not a good combination! But I’ll never forget it.”

Just as thousands of Illinois alumni will never forget their own favorite coffee house—that one-of-a-kind smell in the air, great music on the soundtrack, the lively sounds of conversation and debate, an early-morning deadline looming and their next cup on the way.