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This Place Gives Me the Jitters
A Charlottesville Coffee Bar Tour

By Roger Piantadosi
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

In the picturesque but long-past-quaint university town of Charlottesville, there are so many places to get a decent espresso drink today that the first draft of this brief review of favorite C'ville coffee bars actually contained no periods or commas. Or pauses of any kind, really.

And . . . sorry. I have now switched to decaf.

But even in this final draft, take note that there is still no more than one mention of a Starbucks. The famous franchise does have five outlets here in the home of the University of Virginia, amid the low foothills of the Blue Ridge and the long shadow of Thomas Jefferson. But they are all, except for maybe one, just plain outdone by the locals.

Charlottesville today has more restaurants per capita than any city in Virginia, or possibly France, and is home to the kind of insanely committed foodies who post photos on their blogs of (I'm not kidding) handwritten estimates of opening dates that the owners have taped to the doors of restaurants that are still under construction. And who then discuss it online for days.

Some say it's the university's presence that makes espresso, steamed milk, neighborhood flavor and -- most important -- free wireless Web access such valued commodities. This is an intriguing theory.

Please discuss.

· THE MUDHOUSE (213 W. Main St., 434-984-MUDD)

Must . . . not . . . sit . . . on . . . sofa. Too late. I am here for the rest of the afternoon, if not the decade.

Also here for a spell, in Mudhouse's cozy, often crowded space at the west end of Charlottesville's ever-bustling downtown pedestrian mall, are more than a few young people with really interesting hair or pierced what-have-yous, plus at least seven laptops and a table of tweedy professor-looking guys. Around the sofa in the front window are my wife and friends, fresh from a SynergyDance class at the nearby Studio 206. With the class being part dance and part meditation, the drink order translates into an equal proportion of high-octane caffeine and green-colored, healthy-looking smoothie thingies.

So Mudhouse has arguably the most diverse clientele and one of the best locations of all of C'ville's coffee bars. Opened way back in '95 after the owners tired of espressing themselves from a cart out on the freezing mall, the place toyed for a while with being a restaurant, says operations director Dan Pabst. But the line for sandwiches interfered with what they did best, which was all things coffee. So they scaled back on food -- though this does not mean you should miss Mudhouse's weekly Cupcake Fridays -- and Mudhouse is usually ranked among the city's top three or four coffee bars, just like . . .

· CAFE CUBANO (112 W. Main St., 434-971-8743)

Sharing one of the best locations in town (Mudhouse is just across the mall, less than a block away), Cafe Cubano is more definitively a restaurant, with a full menu of breakfasts and Cuban and other sandwiches, plus it's open late.

It also seems more definitively cool, inasmuch as a clearly non-hip guy like me always feels more as if I'm missing something amid the deco decor at Cafe Cubano than at, say, Mudhouse. In any case, the coffee -- especially the eponymous drink, with or without leche -- is as good as it is anywhere, prepared either with great enthusiasm or disdain. (With baristas, whose job involves a lot of whacking and banging things and loud sounds that can be mistaken for screams, it is often hard to tell.)

· SHENANDOAH JOE (945 Preston Ave., 434-295-4563)

Located next to a charity secondhand store in an ever-changing shopping-center district not far from downtown, Shenandoah Joe is not just a state-of-the-art coffee bar. What distinguishes it from the others -- besides the fact that more than half of the enormous, high-ceilinged space is an active, humming roastery with at least 30 types of beans stacked on shelves and counters -- is that the baristas know everything about the beans that made the coffee they're making into your personal drink and are happy to discuss any part of the process with you. (In fact, Joe's gives you three choices of beans just for espresso drinks.)

"The owners were dedicated to the craft of roasting for more than a dozen years," says manager Paul Koch, speaking of Dave and Kristi Fafara. "But ultimately, the consumer's experience of coffee comes down to whoever makes it . . . and we want to have a shot at that."

The place is open and light, with storefront windows on three sides, and you can take your non-anonymous, fair-trade brew and free WiFi sitting down (at a bar facing the roasters) or slouching (on one of several sofa seating groups).

· C'VILLE COFFEE (1301 Harris St., 434-817-2633)

In the same semi-industrial neighborhood as Shenandoah Joe, C'ville is a slower-paced coffee bar -- and restaurant. If there's a long line, it may take some time to get your vanilla latte and your "honey bunches" -- incredibly fabulous mini muffins made from oats, coconut, brown sugar, honey and butter -- or, especially, your Asian noodle bowls or your hummus-based salad or sandwich. For those of us who used to be in more of a hurry before we realized what we were hurrying toward, this is fine.

"Our vision was always to be the living room of Charlottesville," says owner Toan Nguyen.

Nguyen credits his eldest daughter, who was 8 at the time, with the idea that he and his wife, Betsy Patrick, should open a coffee shop in the small front room of their custom furniture shop back in 2000.

Eventually people stopped coming to see the furniture, Nguyen says, and a second and then third room was converted. Now there's room enough for kids (who have a special corner for playtime), adults (ditto) and everyone in between (students, journalists and, you know, um, bloggers).

"I wrote my last book here," says Heather Hummel, sitting in the sunniest corner of the adult room with her laptop and coffee. "I think a lot of writers like to work here."

Ha. Crazy talk.

Can I have another decaf, please?

· For more info on Charlottesville, contact the Charlottesville/Albemarle County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 877-386-1103, http://www.pursuecharlottesville.com.

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