OUR RATING: Chance It!
Cafe 53, sometimes known as ‘The Gelato Cafe’ by locals, is one of a small handful of off-campus cafes near The University of Chicago in Hyde Park. Along with free wi-fi and long hours, Cafe 53 offers your typical coffees and espressos along with a wide variety of pastries, cakes, savory pies and sandwiches, but uniquely also happens to offer gelato.
Alicia: For a small cafe, the variety of drinks on hand is quite varied, offering light, dark, flavored and decaf roasts, an espresso with their signature espresso beans, and a plethora of cappuccinos, lattes and teas. You can also request a card that rewards you with a free drink every tenth visit, so if you need a place to give you that necessary dose of caffeine while you study late, this is a pretty good choice for your wallet.
The atmosphere offered by Cafe 53 is generally workable, with a few comfortable tables and even a patio out back. It doesn’t get too loud in here, and sometimes can provide that perfect amount of sun. While decorated, the ambiance of the cafe is relatively ambiguous, so while the gelato on offer might sound intimate, I probably wouldn’t go on a coffee date here. Yet one could easily settle down with a cup of Joe and get through quite a few pages of Marx.
Adam: I remember a few years back when a gelato craze was somewhat sweeping Chicago, and you could find a good cafe serving the stuff in just about every neighborhood. Gelato itself is age-old, coming from the Latin gelatus or frozen and probably invented through the mixing of Alpine snow with fruit juices for the richer ancient Romans (although there is little direct evidence to suggest this). Unfortunately for the gelato-istas, the craze seemed to die down, to be replaced with frozen yogurt, an obviously healthier alternative.
Cafe 53 was one of the last cafes established before this wane, and this has surely affected their business. Also in Hyde Park is Istria Cafe, also providing gelato, although Istria is of older pedigree. Upon tasting their gelato (there are many varieties such as caramel, pistachio and stracciatella) I was convinced that they had the basic method figured out, but the soul was lacking. Don’t get me wrong, the gelato is good, but it’s not fantastic, and Istria provides similar types and quality. It’s also just not as good as some gelato I’ve had outside the city, and that annoys me because it’s simply not that hard to make. They also have a sorbet collection that seems rather good, but then again, sorbet is rather hard to get wrong.
I remain unconvinced of Cafe 53’s core concept: while the coffee and atmosphere seem fine, it’s main selling point, the gelato, is clearly not up to snuff. Go ahead and give it a try, but I’m not promising anything.
Final Thoughts: Cafe 53 isn’t trying that hard to keep your business, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t occasionally patronize it. Good for coffee and a chat, but try not to spend too much on the gelato.