Local Grind

The technometropolis that is South Campus Residence Hall may have just opened its doors last year, but its effects on the neighboring Woodlawn community are already palpable. As the university’s population moves south of the Midway and outside the safe confines of the main quad and the student ghetto immediately to the north, businesses in Woodlawn will have to decide whether and how to change to meet its new residents’  needs. Robust Coffee Lounge is a months-old café that embodies one direction Woodlawn could be heading: a continuation of Hyde Park. The walk to the place will give you a good idea of the issues facing expansion south of campus–the lounge rests in a half-vacant building across the street from two deserted and unkempt lots.

It’s clear that the owners of Robust were taking a risk in opening this coffee shop. South Campus has a built-in café and even students who want to get away from the dorms might prefer the comfort of familiar haunts like the Med to the conveniently located but less picturesque Robust Coffee Lounge.

Luckily, there are more reasons to make the trip. I went to Robust this past Friday for some breakfast, and to check out this potential new vision of business development in Woodlawn. There are four distinct seating areas, which works well to make the most of the large open space of the café. There are metal tables for two by the window, a bar area, a small coffee table with cushy chairs and a larger wooden table and booth area for bigger groups and longer stays. Although I did not bring my computer, everyone else in the café was online, and my receipt had an alphanumeric code that gave me access to free wifi.

All sandwiches are served in plastic containers for carry-out, it seems, and my drink came in a paper cup. This is a small detail, but I would hope that Robust would start serving their food on plates and their drinks in mugs, not just for environmental reasons but also to encourage people to stick around and enjoy their purchases. Of course, presentation shouldn’t matter if the food is good, and here Robust performs admirably. The café offers a host of breakfast and lunch sandwiches, in addition to a wide variety of coffee, espresso, and shake drinks. I ordered an egg and cheese croissant  that was quite good for the price. Robust also definitely knows its coffee, which was some of the best I’ve had on the South Side. In fact, the café is the only one I have seen in the area to offer pour-over coffee, a lengthy and expensive brewing method. Derek, the co-owner of Robust, assured me that the end result is “well worth the price.”

The lounge has gone to great lengths to be a friendly community café. There is a bulletin board already covered with flyers and business cards, and a loaner library in the back carrying everything from Danielle Steel novels to primers on ancient mythology. The music of choice ranged from downbeat to fun pop from the ‘70s and ‘80s. However, all the trappings of a neighborhood institution do not an institution make, and in this sense Robust suffers from being so new.

The kind of vibe the place wants to create can only come with time, and Robust still seems to be finding its image. Their logo looks a bit corporate, and yet the menu is artfully chalked on a blackboard. The theme of the place is an unexpected mix of road trip and bistro, with street signs decorating the wall and bathrooms and “back to basics” coffee carafes hanging from the ceiling. In a nice touch, an old dresser serves as the condiment holder. Robust’s eclectic look has potential, but it’ll take patrons to make it cool.

Robust was sparsely populated when I visited. The place in general was very quiet, and the few people who were there were alone. I did go at an odd hour, but I believe the emptiness of the place is indicative of its obscurity to University students and the surrounding community. It seems unlikely that Robust will prosper without a serious growth in student business in the coming months–something the owners recognize. Derek says, “The neighborhood response has been really positive, but we’ve only started advertising around campus.”

And I hope that presence develops. Robust is a great spot, growing pains and all. It makes a good escape area for South Campus students, and with support it could draw other businesses into the area. It has better hours than the bizarrely limited Third World Café, and is far more fun to hang out in than a Starbucks. And as far as the worries of gentrification go, this café is essentially an oasis in an asphalt desert. At least a place like this, pretense and all, creates dialogue about how Woodlawn should develop as the University expands south of the Midway.  That can do a lot more than another vacant lot.

Robust Coffee Lounge, 6300 S. Woodlawn. Monday-Friday, 7am-7pm; Saturday-Sunday, 8am-6pm. (773)891-4240. robustcoffeelounge.com