SOUTHERN California is used to the spotlight, but when it comes to independent coffeehouses, we’re still in the rain shadow of the Pacific Northwest. Maybe this is because Angelenos don’t have to endure the lurking damp and early darkness that send so many Seattleites running to the comfort of their neighborhood coffee bars. Or maybe it’s because we’ve historically liked the ice-blended drinks that play so much better at the beach (it’s really hard to carry a demitasse of espresso in flip-flops over the sand).
Although there are hundreds of places to get a cup of coffee -- or a soy decaf triple latte -- in this town, it’s surprisingly difficult to find a really good one. Between over-roasted beans, drinks with a proportion of milk more suited to a milkshake than a latte, anemic shots of espresso and flat-out terrible brew, it’s harder than you think to get a satisfying caffeine fix. Fortunately for those of us who take coffee seriously -- and in ceramic cups, straight, instead of under a mountain of whipped cream -- this is finally changing.
Check out some of these neighborhood haunts for a serious dose of quality joe.
Espresso so chic
Caffe Luxxe. This 4-month-old coffeehouse is an all-around aesthetic experience, from the chic Montana Avenue address to the sleek coffee bar where you order your drinks to the black-clad baristas (all adept in latte art). Co-owner Mark Wain got his training -- and gets his beans -- from Seattle, but returned to Southern California (he went to high school in Orange County) to open his cafe. He has plans to open an adjoining roasting facility in the coming months. You won’t find a blender or a drip machine here. Instead, activities focus on two Synesso espresso machines, which make beautiful espresso drinks, including cappuccino that comes only in the traditional 8 ounces, and a perfectly made ristretto -- a shorter pull of espresso, all gorgeous caramelly crema. The drinks are served in Italian porcelain cups (for a little more cultural authenticity) and if you get hungry, they serve excellent pastries from Breadbar. 925 Montana Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 394-2222; www.caffeluxxe.com.
Kean Coffee. Last December, after selling his coffee business, Diedrich Coffee (which Starbucks purchased), Martin Diedrich opened a new coffeehouse, a small storefront and roasteria that he named after his son. Devoted attention to a single shop shows in both the quality of coffee, which Diedrich roasts himself six days a week, and the quality of service: The baristas all practice amazing latte art (gorgeous swirled leaves are their forte). Locals gather in the cozy neighborhood shop to buy just-roasted arrivals such as Guatemalan Antigua, drink anything from a freshly brewed cup of Kenyan to an espresso macchiato (a shot of espresso with a button of steamed milk) to a Turkish caffe latte with cardamom, and eat fresh pastries (creme brulee bread pudding, anyone?) from local Pacific Whey Cafe. 2043 Westcliff Drive, Suite 100, Newport Beach, (949) 642-5326; www.keancoffee.com.
King’s Road Cafe. This busy West Hollywood cafe is actually two shops: a bistro and a coffeehouse next door, where they not only serve spectacular coffee but also roast it on site. In fact, the Probat roaster is behind the brass counter where the barista pulls the shots and swirls pretty fine latte art. On a street where average coffee shops proliferate, this cafe roasts and serves a noticeably superior cup. 8361 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 655-9044; www.kingsroadcafe.com.
Coffee Klatch. Owner Mike Perry has an impressive awards case (including awards for excellence from the Specialty Coffee Assn. of America), but nothing compared to his daughter Heather’s: She’s the 2003 World Barista Champ. That award-winning attention to detail shows in the coffee and espresso served at both family-owned stores, one in San Dimas, the other in Rancho Cucamonga. Perry roasts his beans on a 24-kilogram Diedrich roaster in his San Dimas store. (“A coffeehouse without a roaster is like a bakery without an oven,” Perry says.) Heather runs the Rancho Cucamonga store and gives classes in latte art when she’s not off competing. 806 W. Arrow Highway, San Dimas, (909) 599-0452; 8916 Foothill Blvd., Suite C, Rancho Cucamonga, (909) 944-5282; www.klatchroasting.com.
Cafe Balcony. You might miss this tiny storefront tucked into a nook just off Santa Monica Boulevard if you’re not among the initiated -- or if you come too early, as the shop doesn’t open until noon. This is intentional, says owner Ray Sato, who likes the slower pace of the night crowd, among whom, he says, are students, architects, the inevitable screenwriters with laptops, and also “a lot of acupuncturists.” The little spot is laid out like a bar and has the feel of a place where you might strike up a conversation. You can play it safe and order a cappuccino, but if you need a conversation starter, order the siphon coffee, a cup brewed in a striking vacuum pot that looks like a cross between a Chemex and a particle accelerator. You can choose among Sumatran, Indian Malabar, Guatemalan and AA Kenyan -- Sato also offers specials, such as Kona or Jamaican Blue Mountain. A burner heats a vacuum chamber, which then pushes water up through the freshly ground beans and brews them at around 200 degrees. The coffee is phenomenal, with the body and flavor of a French-press cup, but with a much cleaner taste. 12431 Rochester Ave., West Los Angeles, (310) 820-6916; www.cafebalcony.com.
Euro Caffe. This cafe is in the middle of Beverly Hills, but get inside the tiny storefront and you’d think you were in Rome. A gorgeous copper Elektra espresso machine dominates the window, churning out authentic, perfectly made espressos and ristrettos while Italian soccer games play on the two televisions. Owner Vartan Kemanjian serves only Danesi coffee, as he likes the “chocolate finish at the end.” His espresso is dense, rich and velvety, presented in cups with tiny spoons, both of which he keeps warm in an upper chamber shelf of the Elektra machine. While he chats up the loyal patrons -- Italian expats, cops and local businessmen -- he demonstrates the sugar test: Sprinkle a bit of sugar over the top of the espresso (Italians prefer it sweetened) and watch as the sugar stays on the top for 10 seconds or more before sinking into the thick crema. It’s the mark of a truly well-made cup. If you’re hungry, try a house-made pastry or panini or a salad made with fresh burrata while Kemanjian shows you pictures of the crowds that crammed into the tiny place during the World Cup. 9559 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-9070.
Culver City java
The Conservatory. Located in a cozy shop right across from Sony studios, this family-owned coffeehouse roasts their coffee on site. If the roaster is going full-steam, they can roast one of 24 blends or single-origin beans to order while you wait. And even if you’re not waiting, it’s a pretty terrific place to grab a cup of coffee. Sample the well-pulled espresso drinks (they’ve been practicing latte art for 11 years), or choose between a Sulawesi or Ethiopian Yergacheffe. Try one of the pastries, from La Dijonaise, and check out the array of historical coffee equipment lining the lofty walls. 10117 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 558-0436; www.conservatorycoffeeandtea.com.
Clouds in my coffee
Aroma Cafe. Hidden inside a leafy garden patio, with plastic curtains that pull down during the rainy season and outdoor heaters for the colder months, this Studio City cafe serves an array of espresso drinks and brewed coffee. And because they share the ‘20s-era bungalow with a bookstore, you can take your double cap and sit down by the fire with a book and one of the pastries or cakes they get from an array of five different local bakeries. Says owner Mark Gunsky, who took a chance on the spot 14 years ago, “I wanted an old outdoor space.” And he’d agree that his coffee, which he gets from Fonte Roasters in Seattle, tastes even better in a rainstorm. 4360 Tujunga Ave., Studio City, (818) 508-6505.
Mexican at heart
Zona Rosa Caffe. This Pasadena coffeehouse was named for an art district in Mexico City -- and the menu and the decor reflect that connection. Mexican art hangs on the walls downstairs as well as upstairs in the cozy reading room, and the cafe regularly hosts traditional Mexican music and cultural events such as a Dia de los Muertos celebration. Try a Zona Rosa cappuccino, which combines espresso with Mexican chocolate and whipped cream. Owner Michael Moreno won’t say which roaster supplies his beans, only that he’s gotten them from the same San Francisco source since he opened his shop 12 years ago. 15 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, (626) 793-2334; www.zonarosacaffe.com.