In any ranking of coffeehouses, it is necessary to consider, beyond the caliber of the brew itself, something I like to call the seven "Cs": coziness, community, conversation, contemplation, convenience, controversy and corporate parentage.
The first five are self-explanatory. A homey -- some might even say homely -- sense of relaxation, combined with a neighborhood feel, the opportunity to chat if you want to, or, conversely, to bury your head in a book, plus easy access to the places where you live, work and play all are factors in determining coffeehouse quality. Controversy, in this case, refers to the ongoing debate about environmental issues and "fair trade certification" , a guarantee that the growers who picked the beans that found their way to your cup have been compensated equitably. Chain coffeehouses, while unavoidable in these days of the airport, bookstore, grocery, shopping mall and hair-salon coffee bar, were not the focus of our research. Nevertheless, as you will see, even one or two of them occasionally found their way into our Hall of Fame:
BEST AFTER-ANTIQUING CHASER
Located in the heart of Kensington's Antique Row, Cafe Monet (10417 Armory Ave.; 301-946-9404) is an elegant way to recharge with a panini and an espresso after a strenuous afternoon of browsing for collectibles.
REVERSE COFFEE SNOB'S CERTIFICATE OF MERIT
Not even Dunkin' Donuts (several area locations) has remained immune from the fancy coffee bug. Check out the vanilla chai and the "Dunkaccino" hot mocha drink if you don't believe me. Still, it's nice to know that you can satisfy your whole office's caffeine craving with the highly portable, 10-cup "Box o' Joe." That's right, coffee in a box.
BEST ALTERNATE DELIVERY METHOD
Firehook Bakery and Coffee House makes a mean chocolate espresso chip cookie, whose caffeine content, when washed down with a cup of the black juice, will keep your mind racing for weeks. Although Firehook has two Alexandria and seven D.C. stores, I find the Georgetown location (3241 M St. NW; 202-625-6247), with its comfortably upholstered seating, among the most hospitable. Thursdays from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., there is a free "Open Jam," where singers, poets and musicians can sit in with the house band.
CLASSIEST STRIP MALL
Among the businesses of Arlington's Lee Heights Shops are three, count 'em, three elegant spots to take a coffee: Cafe Parisien Express (4520 Lee Hwy.; 703-525-3332), a quaint French bistro; the bakery Pastries by Randolph (4500 Lee Hwy.; 703-243-0070); and Cassatt's Cafe (4536 Lee Hwy.; 703-894-0540), a restaurant offering light fare, mainstream art exhibitions and, in affiliation with the Arlington Artists Alliance, art classes downstairs.
MOST LIKELY PLACE TO STRIKE UP
A CONVERSATION WITH A TOTAL STRANGER
Don't be surprised if, two bites into your Danish at the Java Head Cafe (3629 12th St. NE; 202-526-6562), you're chatting with owner Nathaniel Cooper about where to buy a bell to hang on the door or who bassist Victor Wooten plays for (Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, as it turns out). Java Head feels like your cool next-door neighbor's living room -- but with better coffee.
BEST FAKE FIREPLACE
Next to the gas hearth at Allegro Handcrafted Coffee in the Georgetown Whole Foods Market (2323 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-333-5393) is a great place to curl up with your grocery shopping list or, if you're so inclined, a latte and the Sunday crossword.
MOST, ER, INTRIGUING IDENTITY CRISIS
The Year of the Rabbit Coffee Pub (6700 Race Track Rd., Bowie; 301-809-0979), a coffeehouse adjoining, via an open door, a paint-your-own-pottery studio in the Hilltop Plaza shopping center, is also a bar and acoustic music venue. Located across an alley from an Outback Steakhouse, it's also a former furniture store, which accounts for the, well, strange assortment of late-model sofas. Nice coffee though.
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
Forget nouveau. With its unfashionable (one might even say uncomfortable) lunch counter-style stools and old-time apothecary feel, M.E. Swing Coffee Roaster (1702 G St. NW; 202-628-7601), originally founded in 1916, looks like something that fell off a truck on the way to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. The coffee, on the other hand, is fresh and hot.
The tabletop burners and melted marshmallow sandwich fixin's for two at Cosi (several area locations) are a perfect cold-weather accompaniment to a couple of steaming hot mugs of coffee or cocoa. Just be sure and request extra graham crackers if your date is under 5 years old.
BEST BOOKSTORE COFFEEHOUSE
Break the chains. Power to the people. Politics and Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse (5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-364-1919) keeps it real -- and real funky -- in its gritty, downstairs coffeehouse, powered by coffee from Sirius Coffee Company (see below).
MOST WORTH AN HOUR'S DRIVE UP I-270
Just up the hill from Carroll Creek in downtown Frederick, Mudd Puddle (124 S. Carroll St.; 301-620-4323) is the quintessential laid-back coffeehouse, with an eclectic mix of kitchen, living room and Victorian ice cream parlor furniture -- and, as a bizarre extra, a picture window offering ringside seats to the martial arts classes taking place next door.
Maybe it's the combination of alcoholic drinks and coffee that share the menu at Tryst (2459 18th St. NW; 202-232-5500), a groovy coffeehouse and bar in Adams Morgan, but no one here ever seems wired or tired, despite the oceans of coffee and booze in evidence. It's where the sleepy come to wake up and the wild come to unwind.
BEST OPEN MIC NIGHT
Every Monday from 7:30 to 10:30 at the coffeehouse-bar-nightclub-eatery known as Jammin' Java (227 Maple Ave., Vienna; 703-255-1566), you can hear, for free, "music you should be paying for," in the words of host Steve Key. The rest of the week features bands in concert.
Isn't that Chandler with the laptop? Look, there goes Phoebe to the women's room! I used to think that no place existed as bustling as the fictional Central Perk coffeehouse of TV fame, but Common Grounds Coffee and Tea House (3211 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-312-0427) is crawling with look-alikes of the popular sitcom cast.
AT LEAST IT'S NOT YOU-KNOW-WHO
While I can't think of anything extraordinary to single out about the two Quartermaine Coffee Roasters outlets (4817 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda; 301-718-2853; and 36 Wisconsin Circle, Chevy Chase; 301-951-0132), I like them because they have a local roasting plant in Rockville, they pull a nice espresso and, well, there isn't one of them on every corner.
MOST SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE
Founded in 1960 by what facility manager Meade Hanna calls "intellectual evangelicals," the Potter's House (1658 Columbia Rd. NW; 202-232-5483) is an ecumenical church, coffeehouse, bookstore, art gallery, lunch counter and neighborhood hospitality center. After a hiatus of several years, the smoke- and alcohol-free establishment, which serves organic, fair trade certified coffee, has recently resurrected its weekly live entertainment benefiting charities. Friday from 6:30 to 11, the lineup includes a performance by the local improv comedy troupe American Cheese. $5.
WINNER OF THE GOLDEN BUNN-O-MATIC
Everybody loves slumming at Tastee Diner, right? But ever since the Silver Spring outpost relocated a couple of years ago to slightly more upscale digs (8601 Cameron St.; 301-589-6477), things haven't seemed quite the same, and the Bethesda branch (7731 Woodmont Ave.; 301-652-3970) . . . well, it's still in Bethesda. If you want to experience the hard core diner coffee aesthetic -- the well-worn china cups, the Shenandoah's Pride half-and-half in single-serving containers, the air redolent with Marlboro smoke -- you'll have to drive to Laurel (118 Washington Blvd. South; 301-953-7567).
HIPPEST PLACE YOU NEVER HEARD OF
Located across the street from the Metrobus "barn" in 14th Street Heights, Mocha Hut (4706 14th St. NW; 829-6200) offers excellent espresso drinks (fair trade certified, natch) and poetry readings Thursdays from 6 to 8. It's no wonder the shop's slogan is "bringing downtown uptown."
BEST (OR, AT LEAST, MOST MINTY-FRESH)
Located smack-dab in the middle of Clarendon -- ground zero for suburban coffeehouses -- the tiny Java Shack (2507 N. Franklin Rd., Arlington; 703-527-9556) has to compete with Hot Shotz (3018 Wilson Blvd.; 703-465-1200), Lazy Sundae (2925 Wilson Blvd.; 703-525-4960) and Common Grounds, to name just a few of the businesses pushing joe, but the hippie-flavored bistro more than holds its own with decoupage tabletops, a small couch and the offer of free chips with the purchase of every sandwich and beverage. Oh, and the toilet smells nice.
St. Elmo's Coffee Pub (2300 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-739-9268) would make any nonresident of the Del Ray neighborhood green with envy. Beat-up furniture, an upright piano, dog-eared board games, a take-a-book-leave-a-book lending library -- and a tasty mocha. What's not to like?
Coffeehouses and poetry readings are nothing new, but at a Starbucks? On the first and third Thursday of the month from 6:30 to 8, the Chinatown Starbucks (800 Seventh St. NW; 202-289-1576) hosts performance poetry sessions. Bet you didn't see that one coming.
BEST MALL COFFEE (PART I)
Thought I meant shopping mall, didn't you? Nothing takes the edge off a day of visiting museums like a cup of java savored in the plant-filled and fountain-splashed rotunda of the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building, courtesy of the tiny Seattle's Best coffee kiosk in that building's North Hall (900 Jefferson Dr. SW; 202-357-2700, TDD: 202-357-1729).
BEST MALL COFFEE (PART II)
Bucks County Coffee Company in the Union Station food court (50 Massachusetts Ave. NW; 202-682-1326) gets bonus points for bringing fair trade certified coffee to the huddled masses standing in line for the multiplex.
BEST SPECTATOR SPORT
The sporadically scheduled roasting sessions at Sirius Coffee Company's "micro-roastery" (4250 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-364-2600) are a fascinating and aromatic way to pass the time -- that is, until Mayorga Coffee Factory opens up