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Mmm, Chocolate Bars
When you've overdosed on cappuccino and it's too early for drinks, there's no sweeter place to meet
Copyright © 2005 Time Inc. All rights reserved.

September 2005

By Kristin Kloberdanz, with reporting by Leron Kornreich and Golnoush Niknejad

Are these chocolate or plastic?" Diane Schlamadinger, 38, asks incredulously as she eyes a display of fancy chocolates in yellows, greens and pinks. She samples a dark truffle that oozes ganache, and she moans with delight. Schlamadinger and her cousin Natalie Ruiz, 21, have wandered into the new Ethel's Chocolate Lounge in their Chicago neighborhood. The pair ooh and ah over the plush pink furniture and giggle about the writing on the walls ("Is it a tryst if it's with a truffle?") before settling into chairs on the brick patio with two iced mocha drinks. "Oh, my gosh," Schlamadinger sighs happily. "I love it here."

Overdosed on Starbucks? Burned out on the bar scene? Check out the chocolate lounge, a kind of petite pleasure palace first popularized in 17th century Europe, where chocolate was the exotic new import from South America. (A Frenchman reportedly opened the first chocolate-drinking house in London in 1657.) As reimagined for 21st century America, the lounges--there are now dozens in the U.S.--range from elegant Continental-style establishments like Manhattan's La Maison du Chocolat, where a cup of Guayaquil or Caracas hot cocoa sets you back $7, to the more mass-market Ethel's Chocolate Lounges, created by Mars Inc., the U.S.'s No. 2 candy vendor. Mars has launched three Ethel's in Chicago this year and plans on three more by the end of summer. Indiana-based South Bend Chocolate Co. has opened seven Chocolate Cafés in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan in the past two years, and Vosges, a Chicago-based truffle company, has established four Haut-Chocolat Purple Houses in New York City, Chicago and Las Vegas.

"Chocolate is the new coffee," says Beth Kimmerle, author of Chocolate: The Sweet History. U.S. sales of gourmet chocolate totaled nearly $1.5 billion last year and have grown 20% a year since 2001--far surpassing the growth rate of specialty coffee. In a time of economic sluggishness, says Kimmerle, a $1.34 piece of artisanal chocolate provides people with an affordable luxury: "They say, 'I can't take my trip to Aruba, but I can indulge myself in this.'" Adding to the allure is medical research that has made a guilty pleasure seem less guilty. Antioxidants in chocolate may help protect against cancer, dark chocolate has been found to moderate blood pressure, and other ingredients elevate mood.

Like fine coffee, gourmet chocolate involves a variety of beans, appellations and processes. And tasters across the U.S. are discovering that the complexities of a luxury are far more enthralling in a group setting. At Chocolate Springs Café in Lenox, Mass., connoisseurs nibble on feather-light champagne cognac truffles and fresh garden-mint chocolates while relaxing to live piano music on weekends. At Moonstruck Chocolate Café in Beaverton, Ore., patrons attuned to the nuances of flavor order several pieces of chocolate with varying percentages of cacao beans. While the confections and connoisseurship may be less rarefied at the more mainstream shops, they too encourage customers to linger. At Ethel's, which promotes itself as "a place to chocolate and chitchat," patrons can chew the butterfat over the chocolate trivia cards planted at a few tables.

Some prefer to take their chocolate hit--and run . Gina Sodergren, 27, likes to stop in for a prework brew at the Leonidas Chocolate Café in Santa Monica, one of two opened in the Los Angeles area in the past year by the Belgian chocolate company. "They have stuff like Orange Velvet and Peppermint Delight and Mexican Cocoa," she says, "drinks you can't find anywhere else."

Owners of chocolate lounges say their clientele is about 60% women, but men are discovering that they make a sweet spot for dates. Ethel's manager Rugya Marshall says plenty of single guys find their way to her counter. "You'd think the pink would scare them," she says, "but they're pretty brave when it comes to chocolate."