Coffeehouses Home for New Java Man

Article excerpt

It's noontime on a blue-sky, crowded-street day in Adams Morgan. Constantin Stavropoulos, owner of Tryst, is wearing an apron and making sure the young couple who have just sat down have had a chance to order.

"Today's a little hectic," he says. "Our computers are down."

A note by the cash register tells you just how to proceed because of the minicrisis if you're ordering take-out. The frantic, congested atmosphere hasn't changed a thing at the popular coffeehouse and bar on 18th Street NW. The place is packed, but even with people waiting to get in, or milling around in the aisles, the air of a relaxed, casual neighborhood spot remains.

This is a place where the coffee is steaming in big, round cups, where people read the Sunday papers and the free papers, or do the crossword puzzle, set up their computers, give their baby the bottle, or chow down on the sandwiches named for regular customers.

"The idea was and remains to have a place that's an alternative spot, like you're at home, you're at work, or you're . . . here," says Mr. Stavropoulos, who started Tryst two years ago.

Welcome to the coffeehouse, 2001 style.

In Washington, coffeehouses have been percolating onto the scene at a steady pace, many of them popping up - and sometimes closing down - as an answer to Starbucks, the coffee juggernaut out of Seattle that often seems to threaten to devour every available corner in the city and the suburbs, with around 70 establishments in the metro area.

Starbucks helped create a still-bottomless demand for flavored, high-priced coffee - from cappuccino, to mocha, to espressos and lattes and their iced counterpoints in the summer. So omnipresent has Starbucks become - there are three within about a six-block stretch of Connecticut Avenue in and around Dupont Circle - that the presence of the green-logoed establishments all but invited competition, imitation or alternative riffs on the coffeehouse motif.

Mostly, what has happened is a resurgence or re-emergence of coffeehouses, some of them funky resurrections of 1950s and 1960s-style establishments geared to coffee, and heavy with atmosphere of one kind or another.

While Xando - a corporate chain that can be appealing because of its laid-back, comfort-zone design, its own brand coffees and its artsy atmosphere - is already in the forefront with two of its own Dupont Circle locations close by Starbucks, it's the local entrepreneurs who provide diversity among coffeehouses in Washington.

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That would be folks like Mr. Stavropoulos, a boyish-looking 38, and his pioneering Tryst in that young and crowded stretch of club- and bar-filled Adams Morgan.

That would be people like Tammy Brooks, a 40-year-old Verizon employee who decided to create her own vision of an upscale, full-service coffeehouse called Kaffe De Cafe at 2175 K St. NW on Washington Circle, drawing on the doctors and nurses and employees at George Washington University Hospital, GWU students and professors, and neighborhood residents for her clientele.

That would be someone like Helene Bloom, 58, who bought Soho at 21st and P streets NW and built on the idea of an artsy, almost classically bohemian coffeehouse that is now entrenched in the neighborhood.

Those three are unique establishments, different from each other, and different from the chains. They are by no means alone. In Washington, you can't go more than a block or two without stumbling across a shop that has "coffee," "cup," or "java" in its logo. The Yellow Page listings - stretching well over two pages for coffeehouses - attest to the fact that this is not just an urban phenomenon but a suburban and regional one. It is certainly a national phenomenon.

The coffeehouse these days is not so easy to define. The Starbucks franchises, it's fair to say, emphasize "coffee" more than they do "house," igniting a craze for complicated coffee drinks. …