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
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
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 CafÃ© 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 CafÃ© 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."