Written for LA Times

Cafe Society

Thursday, December 20, 2001

In a city where it can be hard to connect, coffeehouses are often the place to work and play. But not all are created equal when it comes to the scene or the brew.



The large outdoor patio is packed with a dazzling flock of people in their 20s and 30s. Girls wear stripy sundresses and stilettos; guys sport casually mussed workout gear; all chatter on cell phones while playing looky-loo with the other patrons. The line is long, but no one seems to mind, as this gives them time to chat up their neighbors. Two exchanges of phone numbers are spotted, as is one woman who, when a Mercedes convertible beeps at her from the curb, runs up and leans in.

Does she know the guy? “No, but I saw him online,” she says, tucking his business card in her Kate Spade clutch.

“Coffee shops have replaced bars as the new meeting place,” says David Wygant, author of the dating primer “Meet Somebody Today.” “You may go out to a club on Friday and not meet anybody, but on Saturday morning between 9:30 and 11, you know your local coffee shop is going to be full of single people, talking, reading, networking. It’s a very casual gathering spot, where it’s OK to approach someone and have a conversation. And people are acting real; they’re not under the influence of alcohol. You can make up for your missed opportunities at the bar at the coffee shop.”

Does Wygant think people in the market to meet somebody care about the quality of the coffee? “No, not at all,” he says. “If I tell a guy, ‘There are beautiful women to be had at the Coffee Bean in Brentwood,’ he doesn’t care what the coffee tastes like. Coffee Bean doesn’t have the best coffee; Peet’s does. But Coffee Bean attracts the best-looking crowd.” Though the coffee shop may be adept at addressing all our needs, what about taste? Although there are plenty of folks who profess to actually like mint and mocha and raspberries in their coffee, real coffee lovers find flavorings anathema. For them, there are only two choices: Grind your own beans and know your brew is fresh, or head to Peet’s. Peet’s is a chain started in Berkeley in 1966 by Alfred Peet, one of whose early acolytes was Schultz, who worked for Peet’s before joining Starbucks, and who, in his book, “Pour Your Heart Into It,” cites Peet as “the spiritual grandfather of Starbucks.”

Starbucks continues to colonize America and the world, and in the process, one might argue, it has colluded in the decline of its product. (A new Starbucks is set to open in Vienna, the birthplace of the coffeehouse; and the company is currently working with Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s corporation to develop stores in “underserved” communities.) Peet’s, on the other hand, has only about 60 locations, in four states, including nine in Southern California. The concentration and care put into every cup show.

Nancy Rommelman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.