On a hot midsummer Monday afternoon, people continuously bustle through Robust Coffee Lounge on the corner of 63rd Street and Woodlawn Ave. in their shorts and tees. A nurse in dark blue scrubs is nestled in an armchair by the entrance dozing peacefully, perhaps after a late-night shift. “Order 91, order 91,” calls the server, and the nurse jolts awake from her cat nap and grabs her sammie, prepped fresh to order in under five minutes.
“(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” as sung by Aretha Franklin blares over the speakers and a TV on the wall displays a cooking show, building mouth-watering anticipation within the customers who have yet to order. The whir of the coffee grinder behind the corrugated metal counters matches the industrial décor of the space—exposed vents, newspaper print wallpaper, street signs adorning the walls instead of paintings, and floor-to-ceiling concrete columns.
An old-fashioned gumball machine that takes quarters and an array of loose-leaf teas in glass jars lends a timeworn feel to the space, despite being founded in 2009. The backroom, larger than the space out in front, has leather booths along the east-facing windows and a back wall with huge drapes to block out light from the rising sun, which, when drawn, evoke the backrooms of the old South Side, obscure places where deals might be struck between the mafiosos and political heavies.
From where I stand looking up at Robust’s blackboard menu, there are eight different breakfast options and a plethora of sandwiches featured, all lettered in white chalk by a practiced hand, maybe that of a former schoolteacher. The reason I’d stopped by, though, was not to admire their signage or gawk at the crowd, but to sink my teeth into another piping hot bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich, one so good it cured my friends from New York of their hangovers just a few days before.
The bacon, egg, and cheese (made with American, not cheddar or any other Midwestern fromage) is a New York City staple, one that “chases off any remaining morning demons and clears the way for whatever fresh demons are waiting at work,” according to one New York Times food critic. Comparable only to the Subway and counter slices of ‘za, the bacon, egg, and cheese also pulls off the remarkable feat of not dividing New Yorkers along the lines of class, ethnicity, or neighborhood in a city profoundly segregated in ways Chicagoans are surely familiar with.
After emerging from the kitchen with freshly washed hands, Jake Sapstein, the co-owner, told me that the bacon, egg, and cheese is Robust’s best-selling menu item. Though I didn’t say it, I wanted to tell him that my taste buds felt validated by this fact.
Sapstein and his husband decided to start Robust after they were laid off from their corporate jobs in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Using money from their 401(k)s, they decided to bump up their retirement dreams of opening a neighborhood coffee shop rather than searching for other work.
Having worked eight-hour shifts every day in an understaffed cafe since the start of the pandemic, Sapstein said that he was finally instituting days off for himself, starting, well…soon. “Right now, we’re just thankful for the help that we have. Everybody’s definitely being stretched thin. Everybody’s definitely putting in their most effort [because] this is the most productive staff that we’ve had.”
Curious to uncover the secret of how they make such good bacon, egg, and cheeses, I was tempted to submit a job application myself. But then I thought some beloved things—maybe all things beloved—are better left a mystery.
Robust Coffee Lounge, 6300 S. Woodlawn Ave. Open daily, 7am–3pm. $2.75–$12.95. (773) 891-4240