Serving up coffee, a bagel and a lawyer

American Times: SANTA MONICA
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YOU GET more than a cup of coffee at Jeff Hughes' cafe in Santa Monica. You also get a lawyer. Or, if you want, a lawyer and a notary. Or even, a lawyer, a notary and a bagel.

For what Jeff Hughes offers at The Legal Grind, his cosy establishment near the ocean, is an incongruous mixture of caffeine relief and legal assistance. Rather than risking a hefty bill just to crack open a conventional attorney's office door, you can seek professional advice at the cafe at the very modest rate of $20 a pop and enjoy a cappuccino at the same time.

The Legal Grind covers it all: child support, personal injury, landlord/tenant disputes, unfair dismissal counsellors and of course - this being Los Angeles - contracts and copyright in the entertainment industry. Every day there is a different roster of lawyers; you can procure the services of a notary, plot your day in court or else just enjoy the coffee and fresh munchies.

"Conferring with an attorney over good coffee and pastries will make people realise that lawyers are people too," Hughes says.

It also makes you realise just how far the American coffee revolution has come. By now it is scarcely enough for establishments to offer the full rundown of lattes, mochas, cappuccino and the rest. They have all become standard fare, whether you are in a trendy student haunt in San Francisco or a mouldy old diner in the middle of the Nevada desert.

The days when American coffee was so transparently tasteless that it had to be poured into thick china mugs just to maintain an illusion of brownness are a fading memory.

By now, just coffee - even Pacific Northwest coffee with chasers and skimmed milk options and pretty domed plastic cups with a straw - is not enough. No, to be at the cutting edge these days requires a gimmick, that little bit extra to keep a cafe fresh and different.

Within easy driving distance of The Legal Grind is Wednesday's, where coffee lubricates the wheels of commerce in the second-hand clothing business. On the border between Santa Monica and Venice is Color Me Mine, where you are invited to paint ceramic bowls and plates as you sip your special roast espresso (for licensing reasons the coffee is made at the next shop, but there is an interconnecting door).

Then there is the Novel Cafe, a second-hand book store with venerably aged shelves and leather-bound volumes, all for sale alongside the blueberry muffins and decafs. Or, a few miles to the north, Anastasia's Asylum, a late-night coffee bar that is a minor wonder of late 20th century Western civilisation: an alcohol-free, sugar-free, fat-free, smoke-free, vegetarian jazz club.

All these are not to mention the more established forms of "fusion" coffee shops, as one might call them: the cafes that have become almost obligatory inside big book shops, enabling shoppers to browse and sip at the same time, the Internet cafes, with their brown-stained computer keyboards, or the coffee bars attached to launderettes, well-known in college towns across America as the best unofficial pick-up joints going.

Why is it that Americans, or at least southern Californians, feel they can't just have their coffee and drink it?

Part of the reason, perhaps, is insecurity. After all, fads come and go and coffee has been kicking around long enough to need an extra jolt. Perhaps - and this observation comes from someone spoilt on the high standards of Italian bar culture for the past four years - the coffee is not ultimately that great. With some notable exceptions it still tends to be too weak, and the over- homogenised, over-skimmed milk lends itself poorly to frothing.

Then, of course, there is the fear of the monster chains. America's coffee culture has been virtually hijacked by Starbucks, the voraciously ambitious Seattle company that is, seemingly, setting up on every other street corner at the expense of independent cafe owners. If you don't want to be bought out or pushed out, installing a lawyer or two is an ingenious way of maintaining your consumer profile.

Then again, it might be a mistake to see the phenomenon as being strictly about coffee. Maybe the gimmicks do not serve to promote the coffee so much as the coffee promotes the gimmicks. After all, the legal services, ceramics classes or whatever can seem dry or unremarkable on their own.

Chuck in a cup of the trendy drink of the moment and even paying taxes or going to the dentist becomes more palatable. An Inland Revenue Service Cafe? A Parking Fine Cafe?

It can be only a matter of time.

Andrew Gumbel