I’ve passed Caffe Paradiso on Lincoln Avenue hundreds of times before. The corner coffee shop’s big windows give passerbys a peep into the café: plants, lamps, and people on laptops in tall-back booths. It’s an undeniably cool coffee shop — one that President Barack Obama visited in 2018.
We’ve written about the campus café over the years (here, here, here, here, here, and this pandemic interview with the owner’s daughter), but we have not had a full review of Caffe Paradiso since 2014, so I decided to go. There’s six parking spots right in front of the café on Nevada Street in addition to (where I like to park) a lot off Lincoln Avenue just south of the coffee shop with metered and permit spots behind JJ’s.
Patrons order at the counter inside by the cold case. Don’t let this photo fool you into thinking this place isn’t busy; no, this was taken shortly after opening one morning. Early birds get the best seats — and short waits. Just an hour later, the line for coffee stretched out the door.
This buzzing coffee shop was unapologetically quirky. The tables weren’t all the same and neither were the chairs, but that’s the charm. Windows let in lots of light for the café’s plants while mismatched lamps, string lights, and pendant lights added more light to the homey space. Adorned with murals and artwork, the walls no doubt provide inspiration for laptop writers camped around the café.
All the cool window booths with a view of Lincoln Avenue were already taken when I visited, but many small tables were still open. Almost all the barstool seats along the windows were available, same with seats at the long communal table.
When I ordered a cup of coffee, I was planning to also order a hot sandwich, but alas, the paninis and new sandwich menu were not available until after 11 a.m., understandably as that is when most people enjoy lunch foods. So I panicked and picked something else instead: a slice of cake.
Cake and black coffee — such breakfast of champions. My cup of coffee ($3.50), came in a nice, big mug, which is leagues better than a paper cup. Caffe Paradiso brews Intelligentsia coffee, of which I’m personally a fan, so I knew I’d like the roasted flavor of this coffee. My cup of joe was very hot, too hot to sip right away, but since I was there to linger, it was actually fine. I let it sit while I entered the wifi password and set up my space to work.
This is Caffe Paradiso’s carrot cake ($5.25), and it was delicious. The slice had three layers of carrot cake with cold cream cheese frosting in between the layers, on the outside, and on top, plus curled ribbons of white chocolate. I am not a big cake person; cake is usually just ok to me, but in that impulsive moment at the register, this cake spoke to me, and after one bite, I loved it. The cake had flecks of carrot throughout the crumb, adding natural sweetness and color. The grated carrots and sweet raisins added texture to the cake, but the frosting — the thick, sturdy vanilla frosting was everything. The cold temperature stiffened the frosting so that it was creamy like fudge, and because it was not overly sweet, the frosting did not overpower the cake’s carrot flavor.
Obviously baked fresh, this slice was an unexpected win, and if anyone is looking for a carrot cake recommendation, this is it. I returned to try more from the menu on another morning, and since I had already sat inside, I sat outside this time. Caffe Paradiso’s patio has twelve tables, many of them tables-for-two with chairs that Tom hates, but the view of passing buses, cyclists, cars, and campus pedestrians was pretty cool.
I ordered a hot tea ($3) with honey and lemon with tiramisu ($5) to-go, something I call The Obama. It’s what President Obama ordered at Caffe Paradiso during his visit to the U of I. My English breakfast tea was served very, very hot just like the coffee. The tea had a good herbal flavor, and I love that the cup had a saucer. Though I ordered my tea like President Obama did (with honey and lemon), the barista prepared it with honey and said sadly, they had no lemons. She offered a slice of lime, but I declined.
The tiramisu ($5) had airy ladyfinger layers and sweet whipped mascarpone topped with cocoa powder. The dessert tasted so fresh, like it was made that morning. None of the ladyfingers were soggy, just soft and fluffy. With a dominating espresso flavor, the tiramisu had a bold coffee bitterness with restrained creamy sweetness.
Lastly, I ordered one of the seasonal lattes: a salted caramel butter pecan latte ($4.65). This one took about ten minutes to prepare, but I wasn’t in a hurry, so I didn’t mind. Cinnamon dotted the foam, and I liked the latte art. It sipped super buttery like hot buttered rum but with warm cinnamon and bitter espresso flavors. So buttery and rich, this latte was a decadent treat of creamy coffee spiked with a little fall spice. Though it started sweet, the latte finished very salty, as the salt mostly sunk to the bottom.
Outside, I spotted this water bowl “for da dawgs and other creatures.”
Besides tea, coffee, and latte drinks, Caffe Paradiso serves hot chocolate, soda, matcha milkshakes, frappé, and juice. There’s bagels, scones, cookies, brownies, pie, cake, tarts, bomboloni, croissants, eclairs, banana pudding, fruit, and packaged sandwiches in the case. After 11 a.m., there’s a lunch menu of hot sandwiches, grilled cheese, salad, and hummus.
Besides being a good spot for cake and coffee, it’s a prime place for people-watching. I noticed sneaker-clad seniors in athletic-wear stop in for water and a snack. Later, I saw two people in business suits come in, see the long line, and walk right out.
Overall, Caffe Paradiso is just plain cool. The distinctive laid-back atmosphere is a contrast to anything brand-new and trending; that chill quirkiness is Caffe Paradiso’s whole thing. If Phoebe or Monica from Friends went to a coffee shop in Champaign, this would be it. Between the big tables, small tables, armchairs, booths (good luck), barstools along the windows, and patio seating, there’s somewhere to enjoy the café’s ambiance and snacks. Since Caffe Paradiso doesn’t have online ordering or an app, plan on some kind of wait.
For more info about Caffe Paradiso, check out the corner coffee shop’s website here.
801 S Lincoln Avenue
M-Th 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
F-Su 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.