Local cafes brew perfect blend of flavor, atmosphere and warmth @

COFFEE CHIC

October 04, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Coffee culture. It's European. It's sophisticated. It' intellectual. It's comforting. It's hot, it's cool, it's hip.

And it's right here in Baltimore.

"I love coffee," says David Key, whose 10-month-old Fells Point shop, the Daily Grind, offers quintessential coffeehouse ambience -- funky, laid-back, bookish and intimately social. "It's a stimulant, but it's an intellectual one. It sharpens the senses, it doesn't dull them."

Plus, he says, the taste is great. "For a lot of people in this city, we're their first exposure to good coffee," Mr. Key says. "We're educating people. They're finding out, 'Hey, I really do like

coffee.' "

A lot of people have already discovered what a fine thing good coffee can be. Sales of specialty coffees have risen by more than 60 percent in each of the past three years, according to the

Trends Research Institute, a social research firm in Rhinebeck, N.Y., that examines trends in all areas of life.

In its most recent quarterly journal, the institute noted that the coffeehouse phenomenon, begun in Seattle ("the unofficial coffee capital of North America"), just in the last decade has spread to other West Coast cities, and in recent years has invaded Denver, Chicago, Washington and New York.

It doesn't surprise David Ortiz that Baltimore can now be included on that list. Mr. Ortiz is manager of the Cafe and the Espresso Bar at the new Towson store of the Seattle-based retailer Nordstrom. Seattle and Baltimore are a lot alike, he says. "They're both 'hometown' cities that still have a very comfortable feeling. People greet each other, people actually take time to relax. Baltimore people would stop for that cup of coffee and a chat." And, unlike some cities where specialty coffees are a novelty, "People in Baltimore really seem to know the drinks and like them," Mr. Ortiz said.

A liking for the new coffee drinks is a big part of their growth. Flavor is one of two factors the Trends Research Institute cites for the rise in specialty coffee consumption. "These coffees taste good," says its report. "People don't have to develop a 'taste' for fancy brews, as they did for the inexpensive, mass-packaged swill."

A good cup of quality

People "first discovered all the different flavored coffees," says Gerald Celente, director of the institute. "Now their tastes are maturing out of the highly flavored coffee drinks to the better-tasting beans. . . . They're going to these places for a good cup of quality."

The other factor in coffee's ascent, Mr. Celente says, is a decline in popularity of alcoholic beverages (down about 10 percent overall since 1979 among adults 26 and older, according to institute research). "It's going to keep declining," Mr. Celente says. "People are going to be drinking a lot less" as concern grows about safety, health, fitness and nutrition.

All this means that good coffee is likely to become more popular as it becomes more and more accessible.

Ed Meyers, who with his wife, Vini, has just opened the cozy Java Blues coffee cafe on Read Street, cites several reasons for coffee's allure: "the basic smell, the addictive nature of it . . ."

The Meyerses have a background in catering, and their tiny, cheerful, blue-and-yellow cafe has more of an emphasis on food than some of the others. Luncheon fare might include a salad of organic baby vegetables, a tarragon chicken salad, or a quiche; there are also pastries, cookies and desserts, including lemon or chocolate squares, and chocolate-dipped macaroons, all to complement the coffee, espresso, cappuccino, mochaccino (made with cocoa), and caffe latte.

The buzz of the '90s

"People want to feel good," Vini Meyers says. A cup of really good coffee, a little sugar in the pastry: There it is. The buzz of the '90s.

"It's the only thing we can get away with these days without feeling guilty," says Donna Crivello, a local graphic designer and caterer, who, with partner Alan Hirsch, will open a new "West-Coast style" coffee bar and cafe, Donna's Coffee Cafe, on Mount Vernon Place next month.

"It's really catching on," Ms. Crivello says. "People are really going for the taste of coffee."

Peter Nobel, whose sleek Coffee Cafe in Towson was one of the area's first coffee bars when it opened in May, says, "I didn't know what to expect when I opened, but I can feel a real excitement from the public." His shop is unique in that it roasts all its own beans on the premises. Recently he has expanded the shop's product line, with more coffees and some specialty teas. He is also experimenting with "cupping," or coffee tastings that are similar to wine tastings.

But there's more to coffee bars than coffee. "We're going through a dynamic social restructuring," says the Trends Institute's Mr. Celente. "The baby boom generation -- 76 million strong -- drove the trend to bars and discos in the '70s and early '80s. Then there was a lull, and hot spots grew cold. Now people are saying, 'Hey, I still want to go out, I'm still a human being, I want to talk to other people.' "

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